Our 2004 article "A Nation Behind Bars" conveyed that few countries hold more of their citizens prisoner than the United States. In June 2004, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2,131,180 prisoners were held in federal or state prisons or local jails. That works out to about 486 inmates per 100,000 U.S. citizens.

However, according to the 5th edition of the World Prison Population List (2004) of the acclaimed International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College, London, the real number is 701. For comparison purposes, Britain incarcerates 141 per 100,000 and China, often derided by U.S. politicians as a repressive state, has only 117 per 100K locked away.

No doubt, we are one of the most incarceration-happy countries in the world... and also no doubt, a good percentage of these prisoners are there as a result of victimless crimes. Smoking marijuana, for example.

As is the way of things, there is an opposite extreme, provided in this case by our neighbor to the north: In Canada, real bad guys can sometimes get away with the equivalent of being grounded.

When Canada's 'Conditional Sentence of Imprisonment' was introduced in 1996, it was intended to give judges a soft option when dealing with non-violent offenders. Parliament designed the new law as a means to reduce the incarceration rate of adults in Canadian prisons, which had increased by about 30% between 1993 and 1994. So far, so good. It is now apparent, however, that somewhere along the way, something has gone awry.

Among the approximately 15,000 offenders in Canada currently serving a conditional sentence under house arrest are people convicted of aggravated sexual assault, manslaughter, criminal negligence causing death, and child abuse.

In one controversial case this April, Saskatchewan's Court of Appeal upheld the conviction and sentence of a man who had been found guilty of trying to rape a 12-year-old girl in 2001. Dean Edmondson, charged with being party to a sexual assault, which is punishable by a maximum sentence of 14 years in jail, instead received the maximum conditional sentence available, a paltry two years house arrest.

The verdict in the Edmondson case had stirred up a lot of controversy to begin with, including allegations of racism. When he originally sentenced Edmondson, Judge Fred Kovach took into consideration claims that the victim, an aboriginal girl, had been raised in an abusive home--evidence, he said, that supported the defense's theory that the girl might have been the sexual aggressor. Therefore, concluded the Judge, a conditional sentence would be appropriate. The Court of Appeal stated unanimously that Edmondson should have received a prison sentence, but said it would be "beyond the proper exercise of our powers" to order a two-year jail sentence since the defendant has already served a year and a half.

"Just look at what you can get away with in this country--without spending a single day behind bars," angrily stated W-Five, a 60 Minutes-style show on Canada's CTV, in a recent report. "You can race your car down a residential street and plow into an innocent pedestrian, killing her instantly. You can take part in a random street mugging where a passerby is stabbed in the heart and left to die on the street. You can pick up a teenage girl in a bar, take her home, and gang rape her. You can strangle your mother with a telephone cord. You can shoot your sleeping husband twice in the head claiming he abused you. You can be caught with one of the largest collections of child pornography ever seized in Canada."

The verdict: Guilty. The sentence: House arrest.

In the eyes of the victims' families, this adds insult to injury--and outrages the many critics of conditional sentencing, including several of Canada's provincial justice ministers who want to change the law so that offenders begin serving their time in jail.

The province of Manitoba's justice minister Gord Mackintosh told reporters that conditional sentencing is "undermining public confidence in the justice system like no other issue... Every two or three months, a conditional sentence is handed down in a case involving very serious violence, sometimes death; that enrages the public."

The precedent was set by the 1995 case of Jeremy Proulx who--driving drunk after a party--killed his friend and passenger John Shorrock in a three-car accident. Even before the collision, eyewitnesses had called 911 after observing Proulx' reckless swerving and tailgating on the icy road. He was sentenced to 18 months of jail, but due to changes in Canada's law at the time, his sentence was turned into house arrest instead, much to the dismay of John Shorrock's parents.

Other, even more questionable cases followed soon, among them that of 21-year-old Jason Lynch, a former maintenance worker who, under the pretense of repairing an air-conditioner, had attacked a 17-year-old girl in her condo in 2002--choking the victim until she was unconscious and leaving her for dead. The judge sentenced him to two years less a day under house arrest.

Surprisingly, house arrest does not even mean never leaving your abode. The convict has to abide by a curfew, usually between 11 pm and 6 am. During the day, he is allowed to go outside only with the consent of his probation officer. At least that's the theory.

As W-Five discovered, the majority of offenders are unsupervised. Few house arrestees are made to wear tracking devices that would help monitor their movements. In fact, due to a lack of manpower in law enforcement, little is ever done to monitor the actions of these felons, or guarantee they comply with even the most basic requirements of their conditional sentence.

Jason Lynch--whose sentence specified that he was not allowed outside unless accompanied by his parents, grandmother, or another adult, and then only to visit his probation officer, for medical emergencies, or to attend church--was filmed wandering the streets alone. Police only arrested him after learning of the damning video footage.

In April, the Ottawa Citizen reported the arrest of Ashley Chivers, a former teaching assistant at an elite Toronto school, who had received 9 months of house arrest for possession of child pornography. Chivers was pulled over at 1 am during a routine traffic stop; according to police, he said he'd been returning from a movie.

"The reality is nobody's in the community to enforce monitoring these house arrest and curfew conditions," probation officer Kathy Hutchison admitted to W-Five. "I would say it's somewhat of a good-faith system, which some people might find to be fairly offensive in light of the people that are under these orders."

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Posted 06-07-2005 11:28 PM by Doug Casey