Lenience for baby-killer

Tom Brodbeck

Thu, April 13, 2006

Apparently killing a newborn baby by suffocating it with a plastic bag and dropping it in a dumpster is not that serious a crime anymore.

At least according to Justice Deborah McCawley, who last month handed an 18-month conditional sentence -- no jail time -- to a 27-year-old mother who suffocated her own baby.

For that, McCawley is the winner of the latest Eight-Ball Award, handed out in this column to highlight some of the worst perversions of justice in our legal system.

McCawley said she saw no need to send Selena Odette Stevenson to jail, even though the woman knowingly killed her own baby.

Putting her behind bars would only harm the woman's chances at rehabilitation, the judge said.

"All seem to agree incarceration would serve no purpose at all ... I share that view," said McCawley.

No purpose at all? How about the long-standing sentencing principles of general deterrence and denunciation?

How about the Criminal Code's requirement that sentences be proportionate to the seriousness of the crime? Did McCawley rip those pages out of her copy of the Criminal Code?

It seems that more and more, judges are ignoring those principles.

The focus for many judges when sentencing these days is almost entirely on rehabilitation and re-integration of the offender. Those are noble objectives.

But they shouldn't be pursued at the expense of the more important sentencing principles of deterrence and denunciation.

I don't know if judges realize what they're doing when they hand out these light sentences for serious, violent crimes.

But the message McCawley has just sent to the public is killing your own newborn is not a serious crime. What she's saying is you won't face serious consequences if you commit such a heinous offence. Instead, you can expect little more than a slap on the wrist.

That's a pretty dangerous message to send. And it's not without its own consequences.

The argument that there's no point sending someone to jail because it will harm their chances at rehabilitation could be used in almost any criminal case.

You can always argue that by sending someone to jail you're going to make their life worse off because they won't get the programming they need, or whatever.

So why send anybody to jail at all?

We put people behind bars for serious crimes like killing your newborn because we have to draw a line in the sand somewhere and say "we won't tolerate this."

We have to denounce the crime and send a message to society that these crimes will be dealt with harshly. If we don't do that, we lose order. It's really that simple.

That's not to say in the wake of McCawley's ruling women are going to run around and start suffocating their babies. But the more you pull back that line in the sand, the more people know what they can get away with. Justice McCawley has just drawn a new line in the sand.

She doesn't understand, or doesn't believe in, the sentencing principles of deterrence and denunciation.

And it's exactly why the federal government is now looking at making serious crimes ineligible for conditional sentences.

They have no choice. Judges like McCawley just don't get it.

Tom Brodbeck is the Sun's city columnist. He can be reached by e-mail at: tbrodbeck@wpgsun.com.
Letters to the editor should be sent to letters@wpgsun.com.