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Prison doctors say Martin Ferrier is an incurable psychopath. The parole board says he's at ''very high risk'' to reoffend. At 31, he has a string of at least 63 convictions, including arson, forcible confinement and several rapes. He's spent 15 of the last 17 years in jail. He is 6 feet, 5 inches and weighs 280 pounds. If he's left to his own devices, there's roughly a 100 per cent chance that he's going to hurt someone.

But don't take my word for it -- take his. He's told people his ambition is to be the next Paul Bernardo. His own mother has been campaigning to keep him behind bars. If he shows up on her doorstep, she says, "I would probably hug him first, and then shoot him."

Haven't we learned anything?

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In 1988, a notorious pedophile and violent sex offender named Joseph Fredericks was let out of jail on mandatory supervision. "I know he's going to reoffend, I just don't know when," said the prison's head psychiatrist. Mr. Fredericks moved to Brampton, Ont. -- by chilling coincidence, the same city in which Mr. Ferrier was released -- and promptly abducted an 11-year-old boy named Christopher Stephenson, who was waiting for his mother in a shopping plaza while she ducked into a store to buy some ribbon.

Joseph Fredericks took the boy to his apartment, where he raped him two or three times, then took him to a field where he strangled him and stabbed him three times in the neck. In the apartment, police found a note in the boy's handwriting that read, in its entirety, "Dear Mom and Dad, I am writing you this note . . ."

Fortunately, Mr. Ferrier didn't have a chance to terrorize the citizens of Brampton for very long. The moment he was released, a pack of news cameras and reporters hounded him, until he fled to a police station for refuge. Yesterday, he promptly pled guilty to threatening a reporter, and is on his way back to jail for another couple of years.

Brampton is heaving a huge sigh of relief. Until two years from now, that is, when he'll be out again.

The murder of Christopher Stephenson set off a wave of public outrage. And the verdict was unanimous. Never again, declared a coroner's jury, should a family have to bury a child because the system lacked the tools to keep sexual predators off the streets. The jury's No. 1 recommendation was for a law, modelled after one in the United States, that would allow society to lock up sexual predators indefinitely. Police, psychiatrists, editorial writers and the public all agreed, and Ottawa vowed to act immediately.

That was 11 years ago.

Since then the system has been tightened up a bit -- but not enough. "We've been talking about this for decades," says lawyer Tim Danson, who frequently acts for the families of crime victims. "I don't accept the argument that we know how dangerous he is, we know he's going to kill -- but we're just going to have to wait for that next victim."

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We do have a dangerous offender law, which allows for keeping someone in jail indefinitely. But it's too hard to use. The Crown has a very narrow window to apply for a dangerous offender designation -- between conviction and sentencing -- and can only do so when the crime is so severe that it carries a 10-year sentence. Mr. Ferrier didn't qualify last time, because his 62nd crime (threatening to blow away his brother-in-law) was too minor. Mr. Danson argues that the Crown should be able to make a dangerous offender application at any time, as facts and circumstances warrant.

Crown attorneys don't even use the powers they have as much as they could. And quite often, Mr. Danson says, they don't even know how dangerous somebody is. That's because our federal and provincial justice and mental-health systems are so unco-ordinated, and so is the information about criminals.

But the worst problem, as you may already have suspected, is the Liberal government in Ottawa. Back in the dim and distant past, the federal Tory government did draft a sexual-predator bill. When the Liberals were elected, they killed it because, they said, it violated individual Charter rights. Every effort since then to revive a sexual-predator law has been blocked by a Justice Department that's terrified of the Charter -- and by people who fret that allowing any kind of preventive detention will open the floodgates to abuse.

"They talk about floodgates," says Mr. Danson. "But you can have annual reviews and pack it with due process. We're talking about a very small percentage of the criminal population -- maybe half of 1 per cent, 100 or 200 people. We know who they are."

In a way you've got to feel sorry for the wretched Martin Ferrier. Because he's such a menace, the prison system refused to let him out on parole. Instead it made him serve his entire sentence and then threw him out on the streets, with no halfway house or any other safety net to catch him. "It's a Catch-22," says Dr. John Bradford, a top criminal psychiatrist. "You hold the person in prison as long as possible, but you take away any chance of setting him up in the community."

Dr. Bradford is perhaps the country's leading expert on violent sex crimes. A repeat rapist like Mr. Ferrier, he says, "carries a bad prognosis, generally speaking. It is treatable but you need high levels of co-operation."

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Mr. Ferrier has refused every treatment program he's been offered. And by now, he's almost certainly incapable of living outside an institution. "He hasn't learned anything inside except to be more bad," says his mother, Judy Perry. She has launched a petition aimed at keeping her son locked up. And for all the spineless lawyers, bureaucrats and politicians in Ottawa, she has a message: Preventive detention is also preventive justice.

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