For families affected by crime, the sentences meted out against the people who hurt or killed their loved ones are rarely enough.
“Lock ’em up and throw away the key!” is a popular sentiment, and understandable when it comes from the families of victims. But it’s hardly a realistic solution. We’d be building jails non-stop, for one thing.
It’s hardly a fair or just notion, either.
Many people change over the course of a long sentence — others do not. That’s why we have parole boards to consider early release on a case-by-case basis.
Consider two cases I recently covered:
Case #1: On Wednesday, the National Parole Board in New Brunswick denied child killer Gleason Bennett Williams’ request for day passes.
Williams is serving a life sentence for no possibility of parole for 20 years for murdering five-year-old Shannon Dawn Morrissette in 1992. Williams, who lived across the alley from Shannon’s family, strangled her and slashed her throat inside his apartment. Shannon’s pants were pulled down when a police officer found her body in a nearby trash bin the next day, but there was no conclusive evidence Williams sexually assaulted her — though everybody with knowledge of the case strongly suspects he did.
Williams has had 17 years to think about what he did, but when he appeared in front of the parole board, he told the panel that killing Shannon was an accident that happened because she was standing too close to him as he cut some rug. Despite taking sex offender treatment while in prison, Williams steadfastly denied molesting Shannon before killing her.
By not even admitting responsibility for what he did, it’s clear that Williams is far from rehabilitated and remains a threat to society.
The parole board denied his application.
Case #2: Scott Morrison was in a jealous rage fuelled by days of alcohol consumption when he stalked and killed his estranged wife, Janice Mae Morrison, in 1995.
Morrison waited all day in a downtown Calgary parkade for the opportunity to shoot Janice as she walked to her car after work. Prior to that, he broke into her home and destroyed many of her belongings.
By any objective measure, it was a despicable crime.
I was at Drumheller Institution last month when the National Parole Board heard Morrison’s application for escorted passes. He had previously been involved in a work release program doing renovations at a nearby museum, and he wanted to continue.
To this day, Morrison has little memory of the crime — but unlike Williams, he said he accepts full responsibility for his actions. Booze made him forget what happened, Morrison said, but he also told the parole board that his anger and depression — not alcohol — made him pull the trigger.
Morrison has taken prison programs to deal with his anger and works with a psychologist to piece through the murky memories of his crime. In fact, Morrison told the parole board he wishes he could remember more so he could better understand why he killed Janice.
Morrison is 14 years clear of the addiction that fuelled the burning rage behind his crime. He has re-established ties with his first wife and his two adult sons, who are supportive.
The parole board granted his request for more work release passes. Parole, on the other hand, is still a long way away for Morrison: he was convicted of first-degree murder and must serve 25 years before he can apply for early release.
Two murderers, two completely different decisions — both correct, in my opinion.
Williams’ case is a bit of a no-brainer, truthfully, but Morrison’s is more nuanced and bears a bit more examination.
It appears Morrison is not the same man who stalked and shot his wife. He came across as genuinely remorseful and has spent his time in prison learning skills (carpentry) and trying to identify and eliminate the traits that drove him to commit murder.
The ultimate aim of our justice system, whether people agree with it or not, is to rehabilitate criminals so they don’t present a risk to society when — or if — they’re released from prison. So, with that in mind, how would denying the application of someone like Morrison, who seems headed in the right direction, serve the interests of society?
Concepts like rehabilitation are difficult to consider for families victimized by crime. It’s an emotional and complex issue — which is precisely why arbitrary solutions like throwing away the key don’t always work.