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Bill C-48 Causes Landmark Sentence for Baumgartner

Travis Baumgartner

Curtis Steeves (3L)

On September 11, 22 year old Travis Baumgartner received the the harshest punishment in Canada since the death penalty was abolished in 1962. Baumgartner pled guilty to one count of first degree murder, two counts of second degree murder and one count of attempted murder for the June 15, 2012 murder and robbery of his fellow G4S Security Guards in HUB Mall.  Justice John Rooke handed down the mandatory life sentence and accepted a joint submission setting parole eligibility at 40 years.

Let’s clear up a common misconception about life sentences in Canada. Life in prison does not mean 25 years. Life in prison means that unless paroled, Travis Baumgartner is going to spend the rest of his life in a federal penitentiary.  Even if Baumgartner does receive parole, he will spend the rest of his life under supervision. If he violates the conditions of release, he can find himself back behind bars. Until Bill C-48, there could be no sentences that were consecutive to life since… you know… it’s a life sentence.

Families of the victims widely praised the justice system. Why? Because of the extended period before Baumgartner will be eligible to even apply for parole. This increased parole eligibility became possible when the Federal Government amended the Criminal Code with Bill C-48, called “Protecting Canadians by Ending Sentence Discounts for Multiple Murders Act”.  (This is a misnomer since there is no such thing as sentence discounts for multiple murders.)

The only problem with extending parole eligibility? It’s offensive, illogical, dangerous and backward.

The chance of parole isn’t a stick to wave at an offender, it’s a carrot. It’s the recognition that as Canadians we believe in redemption.  It’s a statement that the past does not control the future. What is the incentive for Travis Baumgartner to attempt to redeem himself? Why better himself when he has no chance of seeing the light of day until he is in his 60s?

A 1999 international survey, ironically attached to Bill C-48, indicates that offenders who commit first degree murder in Canada spend an average of 28.4 years before being paroled. Internationally, this is second only to the 29 year average of the United States where there is a ‘life without parole’ designation. The other life designation (‘life with parole’) in the United States sees offenders spend an average of 18.5 years, with the United Kingdom offenders spending 14.4 years, and New Zealand (the low) at 11 years. Why make a very long sentence tougher?

There is a principle in Canadian sentencing called the ‘totality principle’. Essentially, this principle can be summarized as: sentences in Canada cannot be ‘crushing’ or cannot extinguish all hope for an offender. The rationale is that a sentence which is ‘crushing’ prevents rehabilitative efforts and can lead to a degeneration of the offender. It can make the offender hopeless and dangerous to other staff and inmates. The wisdom behind this principle can be seen by looking at the suicide of Ariel Castro after being sentenced to life plus 1000 (or 100,000 since it has the same real effect) years.

Setting parole eligibility at the time of sentencing takes parole out of the hands of the experts, the Parole Board. Parole eligibility should be based on the criteria in the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. While there are no guarantees what the future holds, I can tell you that no one knows what 60 year old Travis Baumgartner looks like. Is he again on trial for a jailhouse murder or is he a jailhouse convert to religion leading his fellow inmates in prayer? Shouldn’t it be for the Parole Board to decide when Travis Baumgartner has been reformed and is ready to be released?