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Politics Violent repeat criminals to be locked up longer under Ottawa’s changes

In this Sept. 16, 2014, photo, a prisoner stands in an isolation cell in the Dane County Jail in Madison, Wis. Few prisoners in Canada serve their full sentence. Most, if they do not receive parole, are set free with conditions at the two-thirds mark under statutory release. But the government intends to keep offenders with a violent history behind bars until they have just six months left in their sentence.

Morry Gash/AP

The Conservative government is set to announce that it will make violent repeat criminals wait longer to get the near-automatic ticket out of jail known as "statutory release."

Few prisoners in Canada serve their full sentence. Most, if they do not receive parole, are set free with conditions at the two-thirds mark under statutory release. But the government intends to keep offenders with a violent history behind bars until they have just six months left in their sentence.

The government will bring those changes to Parliament next month, a source said. They will be introduced around the time the Conservatives table a new law, revealed in The Globe and Mail this week, that would end the possibility of parole for some convicted killers. The two proposed changes would reinvigorate the government's tough-on-crime agenda as an election approaches next fall.

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Both plans focus on a public perception that the sentences judges impose do not do what they say they do: life does not mean life, and a nine-year term means three years (with parole) or six years (with statutory release).

"There is some dysfunction that comes from a one-thirds, two-thirds system," said political scientist Dennis Baker of the University of Guelph. "I think that affects confidence in the justice system and judiciary quite a bit."

Even so, he said, "that transition period is very important. That's always been the argument for statutory release: you have time to integrate back into the community under supervision."

The changes would almost certainly boost Canada's federal prison population, which is now at a near-record 14,885, up nearly seven per cent in five years, even as crime rates have steadily fallen. (The record high of 15,276 was reached in July, 2013, and matched in March, 2014.) As prisons have got more crowded, they have become more violent, with greater reliance on controls such as pepper spray or solitary confinement, and with rehabilitation programs stretched thin. The change would also affect aboriginal prisoners the most, as they are more likely to be in jail for long terms, to have committed violent crimes, and to gain their freedom by statutory release rather than parole.

Jason Tamming, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, declined to answer specific questions about the new rules, but said in an e-mail: "Our Conservative Government is keeping dangerous criminals behind bars where they belong. We are always interested in new ideas to keep our communities safe."

Only prisoners deemed a danger to public safety or likely to commit a serious drug offence are held until the end of their sentences. There were just 300 such prisoners in 2013-14, compared to 5,635 on statutory release, according to the Parole Board of Canada's performance monitoring report for that year.

The proposed changes would apply to those who have previously been sentenced to five years, at least two of which was for a violent offence. During that sentence or any subsequent one, release at the two-thirds mark would be denied for another violent offence for which they are sentenced to two years or more. Alberta RCMP Constable David Wynn was shot to death this month by a repeat offender who had received statutory release on a five-year sentence.

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The new rules fall short of the government's repeated promise to scrap statutory release and keep serious repeat offenders in jail until their sentence ends unless they earn parole by showing they are rehabilitated.

The tougher rules for serious repeat criminals will sharpen the debate over how best to prepare prisoners to return to society. Those who get statutory release commit more crimes, and are more likely to be returned to jail, than parolees. Longer jail stays shorten the period in which convicted criminals are subject to conditions and supervision in the community.

Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, said his group wants prisoners to be forced to earn parole. "Any legislation that puts some onus on the offender to earn the right to be released, to earn the right to be forgiven, I think is good."

The government promised to scrap statutory release in 2006. In 2007, a commission recommended ending it as a way to make prisoners more accountable for their behaviour. The Throne Speech of October, 2013, said the government "will end the practice of automatic early release for serious repeat offenders." But doing so could cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The government's more limited change to statutory release would cost in the tens of millions of dollars annually, by one estimate.

The proposed changes would not have prevented the murder of Constable Wynn, because the killer, Shawn Maxwell Rehn, did not commit a violent offence when he received a five-year sentence in 2010.

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