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Editor’s Note: the column below is in response to a Cape Breton Post article (‘Released from prison,’ Dec. 17) which used the term ‘Free Man’ as the ‘kicker’ above the headline. A kicker, in newspaper lingo, is intended to provide readers with an overall idea of what the article is about. Examples might be politics, crime, education, etc.
A recent article in your paper described an offender that had been granted parole as a “free man.” This underscored for me the lack of public understanding that exists around parole, and the important role media play in shaping public perception around it.
Criminal justice stories routinely make headlines at the local, regional and national levels. These stories can impact our sense of safety as individuals and as a community, and how we perceive the rule of law and the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. These stories are often accompanied by eye-catching headlines, which have the power to evoke emotional responses in us. Indeed, judgments can quickly form, and stereotypes be reinforced, based on a simple uninformed headline or information presented within a story. Unfortunately, this in turn can have a lasting impact on the public’s view of and trust in the criminal justice system.
The facts, however, provide an opportunity for a more informed discussion around important issues such as parole. For instance, Canadians might be surprised to learn that the vast majority of offenders in prisons are serving a determinate sentence. This means that they will eventually be released back into the community at the end of their sentence. Parole contributes to public safety by preparing these offenders to re-integrate into society as law-abiding citizens before they reach the end of their sentence. Parole does this through a gradual, controlled and supervised release into the community. By law, most offenders will become eligible for parole at some point during their sentence. However, eligibility does not mean parole will be granted. Parole is never guaranteed, and public safety is always the primary consideration in all parole decisions.
Parole decisions are made by Parole Board of Canada Board members who must consider all relevant and available information in assessing an offender’s risk to re-offend. Information from the police, courts, mental health professionals, correctional authorities, private agencies and victims of crime is used in assessing an offender’s risk to re-offend and whether that risk can be safely managed in the community. Board members also refer to actuarial assessments and risk assessment tools. Contrary to headlines that suggest otherwise, by no means is an offender ‘free’ when granted parole. While on parole, offenders are required to follow conditions established in law, such as to regularly report to a Correctional Service of Canada parole officer.
Additional conditions can also be imposed on an offender’s parole to further manage their risk in the community, such as to abstain from the use of drugs or alcohol. The board also takes into account requests from victims such as to have no direct or indirect contact with the victim or their family members. Should an offender breach any of their conditions while on parole, they can be returned to prison. Offenders may even be returned to prison to prevent a breach of their conditions.
Outcomes on parole demonstrate its effectiveness. Last year, 99 per cent of federal day parole supervision periods (where an offender reports nightly to a community-based residential facility) were successfully completed by offenders without reoffending, and 98 per cent of federal full parole supervision periods for offenders serving determinate sentences were completed without reoffending. These outcomes have been consistent over time, but this kind of positive result does not tend to make the headlines very often. Releases on parole are also consistently more successful than statutory release, which is an automatic release of an offender by law at two-thirds of their sentence.
The factors influencing these outcomes are diverse and complex. However, there are strong and persistent indicators that, as a result of rigorous risk assessment, the application of appropriate controls and conditions, and in conjunction with the right kind of community supports, offenders released on parole are more likely to successfully reintegrate as contributing members of society.
Reporting that contains inherently negative connotations or inaccuracies can slowly erode the public’s perception of the criminal justice system and parole. To address this requires that we approach corrections and parole issues objectively and accurately. In doing so, our national discourse will become stronger, and help us better understand and consider ways to strengthen our system to ensure it continues to reflect both the empirical evidence surrounding successful offender community reintegration and the values that are fundamental to us as a society.
This article has been initially published in Cape Breton Post on 15 January 2019: http://ow.ly/7Wn330noZFb