One step forward, another step back. The federal cabinet, after listening to unusually strenuous advice from some of its civil servants, has thought better of its plan to revise the Criminal Code by eliminating the possibility of parole for certain criminals given life sentences. In some instances, the draft bill would have deprived aged, enfeebled prisoners of the slightest hope of eventual release.
It may be somewhat reassuring that the Harper government was given real pause when Department of Justice lawyers firmly predicted that such changes would be likely to be struck down under the Charter, in a humiliating defeat for the government, at the Supreme Court.
As if to compensate for this reluctant retreat, the government is now reportedly intending to alter the parole system so as to substantially restrict parole eligibility for some categories of offence – and in such a way as to run a grave risk of politicization.
Until 1959, there was no parole system at all in Canada. The only equivalent was an exercise of the royal prerogative. In other words, the federal cabinet could simply advise the governor-general to issue a pardon or commute a sentence.
Among the advocates for change were Agnes McPhail, MP, and Harry Anderson, the editor of The Globe from 1925 to 1936. Eventually, John Diefenbaker, a Conservative prime minister, who commuted 52 out of 66 death sentences, brought in a comprehensive parole system with its own rules, regulations, principles – and officials.
One of the results is that the system has some degree of imperviousness against ill-considered popular clamour about particular crimes and certain types of convicted killers.
But now there is a bill in the works that would apparently give the minister of justice the power to grant or refuse parole for some categories of first-degree murder. It's not hard to imagine that some politicians would routinely say, "No parole for him" – with votes in mind.
If such a bill is indeed tabled and passed, it would offer politicians a dangerous temptation.
It would not amount to enhanced democracy. It would merely be populism; often it would be demagoguery.