Rural residents want young offender changes

A parliamentary committee is also told that harsher sentences are needed to keep criminals behind bars longer

Rural residents affected by crime want stiffer penalties for young offenders, a federal committee studying the issue heard recently.

Nick Cornea, a Briercrest, Sask., farmer who founded the Facebook page Farmers Against Rural Crime last February, said children as young as 11 are committing crimes without fear of a record or penalty.

He represents about 17,500 group members from across Canada.

“My group has made an outcry to have the age of the Youth Criminal Justice Act reduced to the age of 14 to 15. These teenagers know what they are doing and how to do it, and they do know the crime on their record will be exonerated once they reach the age of 18,” he said during his testimony.

The law currently applies to youth aged 12 and older but younger than 18, although young people between 14 and 17 can be sentenced as adults under certain conditions.

Lane Becotte, who heads the Citizens on Patrol (COP) program at Edam, Sask., said young offenders are a problem in his area, too.

“Twelve-, 13-year-old kids running around with sawed-off 22s stealing vehicles is not fun,” he said.

About 100 volunteers began patrolling Edam’s streets last winter after a town hall meeting with RCMP. The nearest detachment is a 20 to 25 minute drive away.

Becotte said the small community of about 400 people was getting hit three or four times a night by people stealing vehicles or breaking into property.

Residents, along with some from Meota, formed the COP and began nightly patrols between 11 p.m. and 4:30 a.m.

The village of Edam also set up a camera at the entrance to town. Becotte noted that the community has no hotel or bar and no business is open past 10 p.m.

“There isn’t one person that comes into town after 11 p.m. that isn’t on camera,” he said.

When suspicious activity occurs, the volunteers contact RCMP but don’t engage with potential criminals. Sometimes they have had to wait hours for an officer to be available.

Becotte said a COP is not a permanent solution but has reduced crime. There have been numerous arrests of gang affiliates and drug traffickers, stolen property recovered and outstanding arrest warrants filled.

“It hasn’t been very fun to be honest, but at the end of the day it’s reduced the crime,” he said.

He said his volunteer group would also like to see harsher penalties to keep criminals behind bars longer. He and Cornea both said the revolving door has to stop turning.

Becotte’s son was victimized when he was home alone and someone came into the family home at 3 p.m. one day. His son locked himself in his basement bedroom but the mental damage from the trauma has been done.

“This is that guy’s ninth conviction,” he said. “If he’d have had a harsher sentence off the start he would not have been in my house.”

Cornea said some rural families have resorted to surrounding their property with chain link fence and razor wire.

Insurance premiums have gone up for victims who have lost property, yet rural residents remain sitting ducks due to poor police response time, he said.

Scott Newark, a former Alberta prosecutor and now a policy analyst, told the committee that the issues identified by Becotte and Cornea are common.

Newark recently wrote a report for the United Conservative Party of Alberta about rural crime. He found concerns about lack of response time, lack of clarity around self-defence, and repeat offenders.

“Compounding that is that sense of this being exacerbated by what is described as a catch-and-release reality, where people that are actually being apprehended, the system is kicking them loose in inappropriate circumstances,” he said.

Newark said in both rural and urban areas a disproportionately small number of offenders are responsible for a disproportionately large volume of crime.

He said many things have to change, including the contract policing model. He identified the model as “the largest single issue” in western provinces.

In Alberta, expanding the role of sheriffs is an option and Newark also said regional policing could work.

Cornea said having one or two constables in smaller communities would be welcome. Detachments are so large and resources so limited that some areas don’t see police officers very often.

Newark added that provisions such as pretrial custody credits undermine public confidence in the justice system.

“How many people in this country do you think are aware of the fact that it doesn’t matter how many times you commit a crime, a new indictable offence while you’re on parole, you’re still eligible for parole the same as a first offender,” he told the committee.

Statutory early release also applies no matter how many offences an offender has committed.

“Maybe we should differentiate between those who commit crimes over and over again. We actually give pretrial custody credits, in my opinion unlawfully, at sentencing,” Newark said.

“We are literally rewarding repeat offenders.”

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