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Police and investigators at the side of the road outside Rosthern, Sask., on Sept. 7.Heywood Yu/The Canadian Press

Reasonable people will ask how a man with 59 criminal convictions as an adult was ever allowed to roam free in Canada. Surely after three strikes (and an additional 56), along with a history of violence, domestic assault and robbery, an individual would lose his or her ability to live among the public – at least until authorities could be reasonably sure public safety was not at risk.

But how does one properly assess if and when an inmate no longer poses a threat to the general public? And perhaps more pertinently, what does it really matter when the vast majority of incarcerated persons will be released by a fixed date anyway?

Myles Sanderson, one of the suspects in the horrific series of stabbing attacks that began Sunday on the James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan and left 10 people dead, was going to be let out of prison one way or another – whether it was after serving his complete sentence of four years and four months for various violent offences, or after serving two-thirds and getting out on statutory release. The latter is what happened in August, 2021, though his release was suspended in November of that year when it was revealed he breached his conditions; the Parole Board of Canada lifted the suspension in February of this year.

After a days-long manhunt, Mr. Sanderson was apprehended by police Wednesday, but he died after going into what RCMP called “medical distress.” And now, in the aftermath, many people – including federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino – have homed in on the parole process as being the source of the problem, with the perception being that Mr. Sanderson was let out of prison “early.” (Mr. Mendicino has promised that there will be a Parole Board investigation into the matter.)

But it isn’t extraordinary that Mr. Sanderson was granted statutory release; indeed, most offenders are granted statutory release automatically, with the rationale being that the conditions imposed by these releases at least provide some structure and surveillance as the offender attempts to reintegrate into society for the remainder of his or her sentence. And most of the time, the process is successful in maintaining public safety: according to Parole Board data from 2019 to 2020, just 1.1 per cent of those on statutory release saw it revoked for violent offences. A higher percentage – more than 26 per cent – saw it revoked for violating release conditions. Mr. Sanderson was part of that 26 per cent when his release was suspended last November.

The Parole Board’s decision to restore his release – “It is the Board’s opinion that you will not present an undue risk to society if released on statutory release,” it read – is perhaps deserving of additional scrutiny and investigation. But at the risk of sounding hopelessly fatalistic, whether the parole board maintained the suspension and sent him back to prison for the remainder of his sentence or not, the outcome could have very well been the same. Mr. Sanderson was a recidivist offender, and of a gender race, and criminal-conviction history that, according to a 2019 research study for Corrections Canada, would, for numerous complex structural reasons, have made it statistically likely that he would reoffend in five years’ time – whether he was out on statutory release “early,” or fully released as planned about a year later.

If there are reforms to be made, it is earlier in the judicial process, at sentencing. Mr. Sanderson’s criminal history included uttering threats, violent altercations with police, repeated abuse of his common-law partner, gunpoint robbery and even attempted murder – though in the latter case he was able to plead guilty to lesser charges, according to Global News, and was sentenced to just two years less a day. The justice system offered Mr. Sanderson a revolving door of convictions, imprisonment and release, which neither offered him a meaningful chance at rehabilitation, nor protected the public.

One option, then, is for the Canadian justice system to dispel with the notion that all violent recidivist offenders can be properly rehabilitated – for Crown prosecutors to more readily seek dangerous offender status, and for judges to dole out maximum sentences where patterns indicate a clear threat to public safety (which, of course, is complicated by the obligation for courts to consider the Gladue principles and other mitigating factors). The other option is to double-down on rehabilitation efforts: to pour more resources into inmate programming, community integration efforts, substance abuse programs and so on, so that offenders have a better shot at reintegration when released from prison.

Frankly, neither option seems all that workable. The latter might be blindly and naively optimistic; the former, nihilistic and unjust. But we owe it to those who were killed at James Smith Cree Nation and in Weldon, Sask. – as well as the family and friends who mourn them – to nevertheless attempt to do something meaningful to reform a system that failed to protect them.

Canada’s revolving-door justice system cost 10 people their lives. We cannot just shrug and move on.

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