No halfway measures
The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, August 14, 2004
Canada needs halfway houses and communities willing to host them. But corrections authorities must do a better job of balancing the interests of host communities and the people who use the facilities.
The latest place where priorities seem to have gone awry is Vernon, B.C., where a convicted murderer named Eric Fish is accused of having walked away from a halfway house and later killing a 75-year-old man, Bill Abramenko, during a home invasion.
If this is indeed what happened, it will be the third such incident in a decade involving Vernon's Howard House, a 34-bed private facility for convicts being eased back into society. In May, 2000, Karen Miller was killed by a man on restricted day parole. Four years earlier, former Howard House resident Raymond Russell killed his landlady while on parole for another murder.
Vernon has 34,000 people, making it about three-quarters the size of Cornwall. The town's mayor, Sean Harvey, says enough is enough: he wants Howard House closed. His citizens, he says, have "paid a price in blood" for its residents' rehabilitation.
Part of the problem for the people in any community where there's a halfway house is that it's virtually impossible to determine the danger posed by the people who live in them. The National Parole Board, for instance, published a study in 1999 that looked back over 25 years at people given various kinds of parole for homicides. It found that 37 people re-offended while on parole, killing a total of 58 people.
But that tells us almost nothing. The board talks about 11,783 "releases," but one offender could be released more than once, moving among day parole, then full parole, then on statutory release at the two-thirds mark of his or her sentence. Also, the study noted only people who had been in federal custody, not people given lighter provincial sentences. And it didn't note offences other than homicides that were committed by parolees.
Julian Roberts, a criminology professor, says the lack of data contributes to a problem of public confidence, and incidents like the one in Vernon don't help. He suggests the National Parole Board needs more checks. Perhaps two separate boards should have to approve the release of violent offenders, and when the system breaks down, a rigorous external audit should try to find out where it failed -- and report its findings with more concern for public safety than for privacy.
Mayor Harvey's impulse to shut down Howard House is understandable, but premature. For a start, it
has yet to be proved that Mr. Fish is the person responsible for Mr. Abramenko's murder. If he is, several organizations will have to answer for it: the parole board, the John Howard Society, and the police who didn't warn the public he was on the loose. If it is shown that a better system could have prevented the murder, that system should be put in place rather than close a halfway house that is an essential part of the rehabilitation of parolees.
Without better information on whether our justice system is working, we're all in Mr. Harvey's position: wanting to protect ourselves, and trying to get the risks we perceive put in someone else's backyard.© The Ottawa Citizen 2004