British Columbia

Prolific offenders are committing an outsized amount of crime in B.C. What can be done to solve the problem?

Their offences range from theft to manslaughter. They regularly breach probation. They are a tiny but significant part of the homeless population. And prolific offenders are committing an outsized amount of the crime currently testing the tolerance of B.C. communities.

Experts suggest handing out longer jail sentences, focusing more on drug demand than drug supply

Experts say longer prison sentences are needed to change the behaviour of the prolific offenders who commit an outsized amount of the crime plaguing B.C. communities. (The Canadian Press)

In a Port Coquitlam, B.C., courtroom two decades ago, a defendant named Roy Gene Hopkins stood before a judge and predicted the future with a surprising degree of accuracy.

In February 2002, Hopkins was 36 and already had a lengthy criminal record fuelled by addiction to heroin and cocaine. 

He begged the judge for a three-year prison sentence.

Hopkins said he knew the system, knew the law and knew a "lousy, stinking 27 months" wasn't enough for him to get the programs he needed to deal with the fact he was "very angry at the world."

"I want to deal with my anger issues. Those are things that I can't deal with in 27 months. And if everybody expects me to walk out of prison and start dealing with them, they're sadly mistaken," Hopkins told the judge.

"I'm going to be back in front of you within a month of being released from prison, looking at maybe a life sentence, because I wasn't able to get the help that I think I need."

He was right.

'The system is not broken,' assistant deputy AG insists

Fast forward to 2022, and Hopkins has 117 convictions under his belt, most recently for possession of stolen property.

A Court of Appeal decision describes him as a "prolific" offender — the kind of person committing an outsized amount of the crime currently testing the tolerance of B.C. communities.

A small number of prolific offenders commit an outsized amount of crime in B.C. communities. The United Kingdom has come up with a definition that includes more than 16 convictions for adults, with at least eight coming after the age of 21. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Their offences range from theft to manslaughter. They regularly breach probation. Driven by addiction and mental illness, many are a tiny but significant part of the homeless population.

The scale of the problem has visibly worsened during the pandemic, leading the B.C. Urban Mayors Caucus to plead with Attorney General David Eby for action on what they call the "catch-and-release justice cycle."

Last week, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Peter Juk responded to complaints about the justice system's seeming inability to keep repeat offenders off the streets.

"The system is not broken," Juk said in a written statement, detailing the role federal legislation and the Supreme Court of Canada play in forcing judges and police to ensure bail "is the rule and pretrial detention is the exception."

Juk said he welcomed "public scrutiny, informed discussion and reasoned debate" — warning against "uninformed or inaccurate public statements."

But can people really be blamed for demanding action from a justice system they're told they don't really understand?

'There has to be consequences to behaviour'

The province has announced an investigation panel, helmed by a former deputy police chief and a health researcher, which will, in part, define exactly what a prolific offender is. Their report has already been delayed once because of the "complexity" of the issue.

University of the Fraser Valley criminologist Darryl Plecas says a wealth of research already exists.

Graffiti and vandalism have tried the patience of business owners and residents of neighbourhoods like Vancouver's Chinatown. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The United Kingdom, for example, has defined three categories of prolific offender:

  • juvenile, aged 10-17, with at least four convictions or cautions;
  • young adult, with eight or more convictions or cautions, including at least four racked up between the ages of 18 and 21;
  • and adult, with 16 or more convictions, at least eight of which happen over the age of 21.

The Canadian Criminal Code does not label offenders as "prolific" — meaning their crimes are considered individually, not as a whole. 

Plecas, the former Liberal MLA and House Speaker, says that approach gives a skewed "one-off" view of a pattern that deserves serious scrutiny — and fitting punishment.

"It doesn't give enough attention to the fact that it's not just about that one single offence, it's the fact that this individual is involved in a pattern of criminality that involves a collection of crimes over a short window of time," he says.

Plecas says we already know how to handle prolific offenders: pretty much as Roy Gene Hopkins suggested 20 years ago, with prison sentences long enough to actually change people.

"There has to be consequences to behaviour," Plecas says. 

"And I think it's fair comment to say that one of the things which has been lost in our system is the whole idea of consequences."

'Respect for the average citizen'

Plecas points to low recidivism rates of prisoners leaving Canada's federal system after serving sentences of at least two years as proof strong intervention works.

He says the point is not to throw people in jail — but instead to use prison and parole to make a lasting difference.

Criminologist Darryl Plecas says the courts should recognize the totality of a prolific offender's crimes with stiffer sentences. (David Horemans/CBC)

"We don't want anybody going through this revolving door," Plecas says.

"But for some reason, we keep thinking that to send somebody to jail for a day or a week, the person's going to walk out of there and say, 'I'm a different person, I'm never going to commit crime again.'"

Plecas says he doesn't blame the public for being frustrated.

"At some point, we have to say while we have the greatest concern for prolific offenders, we also need to have respect for the average citizen and the average business person," Plecas says.

"They have their rights, too."

'Compassion fatigue'

Simon Fraser University (SFU) health sciences professor Julian Somers says "compassion fatigue" is a real thing, a frustration first reported by police and first responders and now "expanded to include people who operate businesses, and members of the general public."

Like Plecas, the clinical psychologist says reams of data exist about the prolific offenders who are a subset of a larger population of people coping with addictions, mental illness and street homelessness.

Paramedics and first responders work to save a person suspected of having a drug overdose. Tackling drug addiction is a key component of a model SFU researchers have put forward which they believe will help curb prolific offenders. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

SFU has partnered with the government since 2005 to collect information about the provincial health and social service history of anyone passing through provincial jails.

Somers says the information helped pilot a program proven to reduce crime levels by getting people into homes, away from drugs and away from other people coping with the same problems. He says participants are motivated to see their kids, to try to improve and by the promise of some agency over their lives.

At first blush, it's an approach that may seem at odds with Plecas's call for significant prison sentences, but Somers says the key is to intervene before offenders reach the prolific stage — and both men say the solution ultimately lies in some form of coercion used to break cycles of addiction and violence.

In July 2021, SFU researchers presented their proposals in a detailed "call to action" to Eby and Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson — but Somers says they were met with "radio silence."

Instead, he received a letter instructing him to destroy the database his researchers had been compiling for the past 17 years in favour of a new provincial data analysis program established in 2018 and said to be "broader in scope."

'Addressing demand, not supply'

Somers says the SFU approach is at odds with housing strategies that move homeless people off the street but keep them in proximity to each other and still using drugs, albeit in safer settings.

"What this would achieve is essentially branding the people who are being assisted by virtue of clustering them all together in large buildings where they have no support to do anything other than what they have already been doing, except in their own place," he says.

Somers believes the current emphasis on a so-called safe supply of drugs will do little to tackle the problem of prolific offenders — instead enabling addictions fuelling their bad behaviour.

"The problem, according to our leaders, is that it's the supply of toxic drugs — once again missing the fact, just as the 'war on drugs' did, that the true problem and the area for opportunity is addressing demand, not supply," he says.

As for Roy Gene Hopkins, as of last spring, he was midway through a sentence of two years less a day for driving a stolen van while prohibited. He'll be out sometime soon.

But will he have learned from his latest stint behind bars?

Consider the response he gave police — according to court documents — when they told him the reasons for his last arrest: "Whatever, yeah, big f--king deal."


Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and the justice system extensively.