Sask.'s frequent use of dangerous offender designation worrying: lawyer

A Regina defence lawyer is questioning Saskatchewan's frequent use of the dangerous offender designation for criminals who reoffend.
Regina lawyer Jeff Deagle says many trial lawyers in Saskatchewan are concerned about the use of the dangerous offender designation. ((Niall McKenna/CBC))
A defence lawyer is questioning Saskatchewan's frequent use of the dangerous offender designation for criminals who reoffend.

"It's an easy solution, but it's not the right solution," Jeff Deagle told CBC News in a recent interview. Deagle, a Regina-based lawyer, said he has represented a number of people who have been designated dangerous offenders.

Once an offender is determined to be dangerous, following a special hearing, a judge has the option of imposing a sentence of indeterminate length.

'It is, essentially, a version of a three-strikes law.'— Defence lawyer Jeff Deagle

Across Canada, there are approximately 400 people who have received such sentences. Fewer than 20 of them have been granted parole, which requires having to show the offender is no longer dangerous.

Saskatchewan accounts for 10 per cent of the 400 dangerous offenders with indeterminate sentences, even though the province has only three per cent of the country's population.

Deagle criticized the latest version of the dangerous offender provisions in the Criminal Code, put in place in 2008, which requires Crown prosecutors to consider a dangerous offender designation for anyone with three convictions for violent crimes.

"It is, essentially, a version of a three-strikes law," Deagle said.

He added that the law was designed to lock away the worst offenders. Now, he said, the designation could become a catch-all for many people caught up in a criminal lifestyle.

"It's that middle group of people who have committed crimes repeatedly throughout their years," Deagle explained. "[The dangerous offender designation] doesn't necessarily work for that segment that is … a product of difficult environments or economic problems."

Parole is possible

Anthony Gerein, senior Crown prosecutor in Saskatchewan, counters that Saskatchewan's disproportionate use of the designation is a function of having a higher crime rate compared with other jurisdictions.

Anthony Gerein, a senior Crown prosecutor in the Ministry of Justice, says Saskatchewan's high crime rate is the reason why the province has a high proportion of criminals designated as dangerous offenders. ((Niall McKenna/CBC))
Gerein told CBC News that anyone with a dangerous offender designation still has the option of changing their lives and seeking parole.

"It's up to the individual," Gerein said. "They have to, of course, make the decision: 'I want to change.'"

But Mansfield Mela, a psychiatrist at the University of Saskatchewan who has provided expert testimony in about half a dozen dangerous offender hearings, said he believes the system might be targeting people who need treatment for mental illness rather than a jail sentence.

Mela said he has studied the clinical histories of several dangerous offenders in Saskatchewan and estimates that as many as 25 per cent of them might have fetal-alcohol spectrum disorder, a condition that can prevent learning from past mistakes. That would make rehabilitation difficult.

FASD may be a factor

Mela said locking up those people isn't the right approach.

"We're not trying to exonerate anybody from the offences," Mela said. "Our goal is that if we can identify that these brain problems are significant in what we are seeing, then we may be able to set up systems that can prevent such a huge financial investment of the community and the society in these people that are in jail."

Mela said a better use of money would be to spend it on the mental health system, which could treat and prevent the illnesses that cause many people to become criminals in the first place.