The case of Myles Sanderson, one of the men accused of killing 10 people in Saskatchewan over the weekend, has brought scrutiny to a commonly misunderstood tenet of the Canadian correctional system that’s nearly as old as Canada.
According to parole documents, Mr. Sanderson, who died after he was arrested on Wednesday, had earned statutory release from prison in August, 2021. His release was suspended three months later before the Parole Board of Canada reinstated it in February.
Facing public backlash and the scrutiny of Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, the Parole Board of Canada is convening a joint Board of Investigation to analyze the circumstances around the case and make recommendations, Correctional Service of Canada spokeswoman Roxane Braun said in an e-mail. The composition of the board had not been determined, but they’re usually made up of external experts.
While conservative politicians and commentators have framed statutory release as a modern invention of progressive criminologists, the concept has roots in the 1800s, when government authorities realized that prolonged institutionalization often had negative effects on a prisoner’s ability to adapt to life beyond prison walls.
For much of the 20th century, Canadian prisoners could be granted early release based on complex calculations of good behaviour. In 1992, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act formalized the system, calling it statutory release, where prisoners would be released from prison under close supervision once they had completed two-thirds of their sentence.
In most cases, statutory release is automatic, unlike parole, where prisoners need to appear before a hearing and make a case for early release. However, statutory release cases can be referred to the parole board if the offender breaches his release conditions, as was the case for Mr. Sanderson, who lied to his parole officer about living with his ex-spouse, according to documents.
The idea is that almost all offenders will eventually have to reintegrate into society, and it’s safer to do so under the supervision of a parole officer than without.
“If you have someone in custody, particularly for a long time, their reintegration into society can be very difficult if they walk out of prison cold turkey,” said Howard Sapers, who was vice-chair of the Parole Board’s Prairie region in the early 2000s before serving as Canada’s federal corrections ombudsman from 2004 until 2016. “We know that periods of supervision and support in the community dramatically increase their chances of success.”
The Correctional Service discharged 4,356 people from custody in 2019-20 under statutory release – roughly 60 per cent of all releases made that year. Of those statutory releases, 1.1 per cent were revoked for a violent offences, down from 1.6 per cent in 2015-16.
“I realize that stats are no comfort at a time like this, but the stats are generally positive,” said Mary Campbell, former director-general of the government’s corrections directorate, who helped draft the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. “It does upset me to see, time and again, the correctional system is expected to be full of miracle workers who are criticized when they fail. Let’s go back and ask the schools, the social services, the courts why they failed.”
In 2015, prime minister Stephen Harper’s government proposed to end statutory release for repeat violent offenders.
Under a proposed law, anyone convicted of a second federal crime who had previously been sentenced to five or more years for a violent offence would not qualify for statutory release. Instead, these prisoners would remain incarcerated until the final six months of their warrant.
The bill died with the election call that year, but not before criminal-justice scholars denounced the proposal.
While community supervision is central to statutory release, the nature of that supervision varies across the country. In remote, rural communities, government services and parole officers can be hours away. The nearest parole office to James Smith Cree Nation, where Mr. Sanderson lived, is in Prince Albert, an hour’s drive away.
Despite that, the February, 2022, parole board decision that placed Mr. Sanderson back in James Smith Cree Nation noted that his outlook had improved under statutory release. He’d found a job, a home and a therapist. He was taking part in cultural ceremonies and staying away from alcohol.
“Parole board members are often portrayed as bleeding-heart liberals who want to throw open the prison doors, but that’s not correct. They have a lot to consider,” said Doug Heckbert, a former parole and probation officer.
The parole board member who signed off on the decision, Betty Ann Pottruff, is known as a hard-nosed justice administrator. “She’s no softie on criminal justice,” Ms. Campbell said. “She often holds up the right-wing side of discussions. She’s very bright, very smart and very decent.”
Within a few months Mr. Sanderson would stop reporting to his parole officer and was considered unlawfully at large. At that point, it was up to provincial police agencies to track him down.
“Parole board members are dealing with human frailties and strengths,” Mr. Heckbert said. “Most of the time their decisions are good. You can bet there’s a good deal of soul-searching going on over this one.”
The Globe and Mail, September 8, 2022