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Alberta justice minister presses Ottawa to toughen sentences for rural crime

Alberta's justice minister is calling on his federal counterpart to introduce tougher penalties for perpetrators convicted of committing crimes in rural areas. Doug Schweitzer also says review boards for persons found not criminally responsible for their acts must give more weight to public safety concerns.

Doug Schweitzer says NCR review boards must give more weight to public safety concerns

Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer sent a letter to Ottawa last month advocating for amendments to the Criminal Code. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Alberta's justice minister is calling on his federal counterpart to introduce tougher penalties for perpetrators convicted of committing crimes in rural areas.

In a letter obtained by CBC News, Doug Schweitzer calls for federal Justice Minister David Lametti to amend the Criminal Code so that certain elements of crimes committed in rural areas could be considered aggravating factors in sentencing.

One such factor would be if the perpetrator selected a remote location to commit the crime "in recognition of the victim's enhanced vulnerability," the letter said.

Other aggravating factors would include being armed with a weapon, or refusing to leave the scene of a break and enter or theft when confronted by the property owner.

"We are standing up for Albertans by acting on concerns to deter crime, reinforce the rights of law-abiding property owners, and giving victims a stronger voice in the justice system," Schweitzer wrote in the letter, dated Dec. 5.

The issue of rural crime will be discussed when justice ministers meet in Victoria on Wednesday.

Schweitzer's request is the latest move in the province's strategy to tackle what he describes as "skyrocketing crime rates" in many of Alberta's rural communities.

The province is hiring hundreds more RCMP officers, expanding the drug court treatment program and granting additional powers to sheriffs and wildlife officers.

Those measures were introduced after Schweitzer spent two months hearing from rural Albertans at more than 20 town halls throughout the province.

In his letter to Lametti, Schweitzer called for amendments to the Criminal Code's principles of sentencing to specifically address crimes committed in rural areas of Alberta and other parts of Canada.

Current aggravating factors outlined under Section 718 of the Criminal Code include offences against children, peace officers and more specific circumstances such as crimes motivated by hate.

We want to make sure we send a clear signal to criminals that rural Albertans are not to be targeted- Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer

"We want to make sure we send a clear signal to criminals that rural Albertans are not to be targeted, and with that comes harsher penalties, harsher sentences," Schweitzer said in an interview.

"Right now, too many people just see the criminal justice system as not being effectively a deterrent."

Jordan Stuffco, head of the Alberta Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association, questions that argument.

"Harsh deterrent punishment over 30 to 40 years of social science research, the results are the same, it doesn't work," said Stuffco, who practises law in rural locations.

He said the changes would create more backlogs in the justice system.

"Longer sentences mean more jail time, which means more people that will be desperately doing whatever they can to fight their case," Stuffco said.

Public safety in NCR reviews

In his letter to Lametti, Schweitzer also advocates for changes to the Criminal Code to address standards a review board considers when reducing conditions for people found not criminally responsible for their crimes.

Schweitzer said review boards are required to impose the least restrictive conditions, which runs counter to the protection of public safety. He said families of the victims should play a greater role in the process.

"Public safety should be far more front of mind when review boards are making decisions," Schweitzer told CBC. "We are fighting right now to make sure that we listen to the public, and to make sure that public safety is paramount in that process."

Gregg Perras, shown here with his daughter, Kaiti, says absolute discharges should not be granted to people with mental illnesses who have killed. (Perras family)

Gregg Perras, the father of Kaiti Perras, one of five young people killed by Matthew De Grood in Calgary in 2014, applauded Schweitzer's move. 

In October, a review board ruled De Grood could leave Alberta Hospital for unsupervised outings and spend up to three days in Edmonton with added supervision.

De Grood's psychiatrist said his risk of reoffending is low, but if he did commit another offence it would be severe.

Perras fears De Grood is on track to an absolute discharge, which means he would not be monitored to ensure he stays on his medication.

"Our line in the sand is to have the Criminal Code revised such that there would be no absolute discharges for someone who's mentally ill who has murdered," Perras said.

"I don't think anyone in our society wants to hear that Matt De Grood has massacred five or 10 more people because his medication has failed."

In a statement, Lametti's press secretary Rachel Rappaport said the justice minister met with Schweitzer a few days after the letter was sent.

"Minister Lametti emphasized a desire to work together to ensure that our criminal justice is effective at meeting the needs of Albertans and Canadians across the country," Rappaport said.

"It is important that any changes made to our criminal justice system are evidence-based, in accordance with the charter, and carried out in a manner that will stand the test of time."

About the Author

Andrea Huncar

Reporter

Andrea Huncar reports on human rights, immigrant and Indigenous communities, youth at-risk and the justice system. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca