P.E.I. judge sets own precedent in child-abuse case
National Post, Drew Halfnight, Friday, July 16, 2010
Declaring his province's courts too lenient on child molesters, a P.E.I. judge decided he should single-handedly change the paradigm: He imposed an unusually harsh sentence on one man in hopes other judges would follow suit.
"It appears to me that the established range of sentences imposed on P.E.I. for crimes such as those for which the accused has been convicted is too low," Justice Gordon Campbell wrote in his decision. "Once a range has developed, it becomes a self-perpetuating instrument."
Judge Campbell sentenced Alan Wade White to 2Â½ years in jail. He had assaulted a girl for about four years, starting when she was seven years old.
The average sentence range for P.E.I. child molesters has been between nine and 18 months. But the Crown argued on Wednesday that was out of step with the rest of the country.
"I consider it to be a great breakthrough," Crown attorney Valerie Moore said yesterday of Judge's Campbell's decision.
She had asked for a term of at least two years, while the defence had asked for 14 to 18 months.
In Alberta, for example, a sentence of four years would have been within the normal range in such a case, said constitutional law expert Elizabeth Edinger of the University of British Columbia. She said Judge Campbell's decision could indeed push P.E.I. courts to be tougher.
Ms. Moore said she discovered the national discrepancy while combing through precedents from higher courts in other provinces.
"What I was finding was that in not only Alberta, which is known for being tough on crime, but in about seven or eight other provinces, they specifically used a starting-point approach in sentencing," she said, meaning crimes with certain characteristics were pegged to particular sentences.
But the P.E.I. Court of Appeal rejected the starting-point approach in 1997 because it found arbitrarily assigning a certain jail term to a specific act contravened principles of the sentencing process. As a result, the province "got locked into these low precedents," Ms. Moore said.
In his ruling, Judge Campbell said he aimed to impose a sentence similar to what would be handed out elsewhere in Canada.
"Nothing less than a period of imprisonment for two years and 6 months would be sufficient or appropriate," he said. "In several provinces, the starting point for this offence is a sentence of four years imprisonment.''
Some observers feel the sentence was still too lenient.
"I'm surprised it was so low," said Grant Wilson, president of the Canadian Child Rights Council, a national child advocacy group based in Ottawa. "It's terrible. It's absolutely terrible. You know, four or five years is not out of line as far as we're concerned."
Mr. Wilson said longer prison terms were only worthwhile, however, if they came with proper psychiatric treatment. "Generally speaking, there has to be an investment by society in those perpetrators to make sure they're not re-offending," he added.
Donna Langille, executive director of the Community Legal Information Association in Charlottetown, noted that because the sentence exceeds two years, White will go to a federal jail, where he will have more access to programs and treatment.
"I would have to say that I am certainly in favour of what Justice Gordon Campell did," she said. Of the two-and-half-year sentence, she said: "I wouldn't even mind if it was more."
White's victim told the court she suffered nightmares for 15 years and attempted suicide three times as a result of the abuse.
White will also be listed for 20 years on the National Sex Offender Registry, set up in 2004 to keep track of abusers after they are released from jail.