With two convicted sex offenders deemed at high risk to re-offend released from Manitoba jails in the past week, many might be wondering why they’ve been let out of lockup in the first place — especially considering the long rap sheets released to the public by the Manitoba Integrated High-Risk Sex Offender Unit.
According to former Manitoba deputy attorney general and Winnipeg lawyer Bruce MacFarlane, releasing a public notification is the “least draconian” of three options the criminal justice system has when it comes to tackling the problem of repeat offenders.
MacFarlane told 680 CJOB that the idea of a community notification system came about during the Gary Filmon provincial government.
“We recognized that there was a real dilemma when someone is about to be released and they have a really bad track record with sexual offences involving violence — but they’ve finished their sentence, and so they have to be released,” he said.
“What do you do with them?”
“(The community notification system) is based on the notion that this individual is emerging from jail… he’s not charged with anything, but there is a real concern, so we want to put this notification out to the public.”
MacFarlane said there’s an assessment based on a series of criteria, including how the offender fared in jail, whether they took programming (or refused it), how they responded to that programming, and more.
The toughest response courts can have, he said, is to look at an offender’s background and track record, and if they appear to be predatory, to ask for a ‘dangerous offender’ designation.
“If the court designates them as a dangerous offender, the sentence could be indeterminate,” he said.
“That’s the toughest response. The classic example is Paul Bernardo — it would be tough to find anyone worse than him.”
The ‘long-term offender’ designation, he said, is slightly more lenient, as it’s geared toward people charged with something serious, and a track record of previous offenses, but based on evidence, there’s a reasonable possibility that the person can be eventually controlled.
That designation, said MacFarlane, usually nets someone 10 years of supervision — with a whole pile of conditions — on top of their jail sentence.
Finally, there’s community notification.
“That typically arises where an individual is in jail,” he said, “usually from a breach of probation.”
When concerns arose last fall about a similar release of a sex offender with a lengthy criminal history, Winnipeg defense lawyer Scott Newman told 680 CJOB labeling a person as a dangerous offender has such severe consequences that it’s usually considered a last resort.
“We don’t want to pull that as the first club out of the bag,” said Newman.
“We’ve got to be really sure that before we send somebody to jail for the rest of their life, that we’re sure this is a person that needs to be locked up for the rest of their life.”
Newman said language like “high risk to re-offend” can be misleading or confusing to the public – especially in cases where a person has been convicted of serious crimes.
If, he said, ‘high risk’ can be taken to mean there’s a 70 per cent chance of re-offense, there’s still a significant number of people – three out of 10 – who will be rehabilitated and will never commit any future crimes.
“If we’re going to lock all these guys up, we’re going to have a lot of wrongfully held people,” he said.