The Northwest Territories' senior judge says politicians and the public should do more to address the causes of crime, rather than focus on what sentences convicted offenders should receive.

N.W.T. Supreme Court Justice John Vertes said there is little evidence to show harsher sentences reduce violent crime.

Vertes said despite the fact that the Northwest Territories has the highest incarceration rate in Canada, violent crime in the territory has gone up by more than 40 per cent in the past decade, while it has dropped by 17 per cent nationwide.

"I think it's far more important for all of us as citizens — and certainly for our political leaders at all levels — to start focusing on the causes of crime, as opposed to a very small aspect of it, which is the sentencing process itself," Vertes told CBC News in an interview Monday.

Vertes said more services are needed in communities to deal with the underlying social issues that often lead to crime, such as poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse.

2 recent cases

The judge was responding to recent criticism of the N.W.T.'s justice system, after two violent offenders received sentences that the victims' families and others considered to be too light.

Last month in Inuvik, N.W.T., 37-year-old Claude Harry was sentenced to five years in jail after he pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the unprovoked beating death of Angus Kikoak, 45, in December 2009.

Kikoak's brother, Steven Kikoak, said he would have preferred a sentence of 15 to 20 years for Harry, who has 19 previous assault convictions dating back to the 1990s.

In November, 35-year-old Terry Vital was handed a seven-year sentence after he pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the beating death of his wife, Alice Black, in February 2009 in Gameti, N.W.T.

Black's sisters told CBC News they were disappointed with Vital's sentence, especially given Vital's history of violence against Black.

"It's like the law, it told me my sister's death was nothing," Tina Black, the victim's youngest sister, shortly after the sentencing hearing.