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Judge critical of mandatory minimum sentences

Judge Randy Walker - DeLynda PILON/Free Press
Judge Randy Walker
— image credit: DeLynda PILON/Free Press

Handing out mandatory minimum sentences may not be the fairest way to deal with offenders who get caught up in criminal activities, especially when they’re rendered vulnerable by an affliction like Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD).

Provincial court judge, Randy Walker, was the keynote speaker at an FASD event held Friday at the South Fort George Community Resource Centre.

Walker explained that during the next sitting of parliament, Canada’s top politicians will be discussing a new set of sentencing regulations which include mandatory minimum sentences. In his personal view, he said, mandatory minimum sentences are troubling.

For example, Walker further explained, gangs are known to recruit young people to deliver drugs for them. If you have an 18-year-old person with FASD who is recruited to a gang and then given the job of delivering drugs, what happens when he is caught in a sting by police? Suppose he has a past record, not of anything terribly serious, but a record nonetheless?

The young man would be required to be sent to the penitentiary for two years.

“Judges are not supposed to have political opinions,” Walker said. “I want to remind you what I say today represents my own views.”

With no ability to use his discretion in a case such as the one Walker described, the young man’s disorder would not be relevant.

Walker said the courts are already uneducated about FASD.

“And when I first started, they were punished more severely if they had the disease,” he said. “Courts are very conservative and slow to change.”

Usually, he added, that’s a good thing. However, in the case of FASD, the lack of knowledge robs the judge of much needed information.

Over the years, Walker said he has taken it upon himself to become more educated about those with FASD.

He said he found though there are physical attributes for sufferers with the entire spectrum of the disorder, for the most part you can’t really tell whether or not a person has it just by looking at him or her.

He described several behaviours associated with those with FASD. He said they try very hard to fit into society and work to please others. This often leaves them vulnerable to those who can and will take advantage of them.

“I found people with FASD - young people - will plead guilty to things they didn’t do, and I had a hard time with that,” he said. “The government provides very little resources to assess people with FASD and I don’t want to send them to jail to be victimized.”

Young offenders with FASD tend to acquire far more breaches then those without, he said. He added this is not an attempt to thumb their noses at the court system, but rather a difficulty in remembering things like dates they are to next appear before a judge.

Witnesses with FASD are more intimidated.

Those with FASD are more likely to ‘take the rap’ for someone who intimidates them.

With no appropriate screening tools in place for judges, no appropriate information regarding FASD for them to rely on and working within a system that is already overcrowded with less judges than 10 years ago, Walker painted a bleak picture for FASD sufferers who wind up in the criminal justice system, even though in general people are more aware of the disorder.

Prison sentences are applied for deterrence and separation. Walker said neither works for FASD sufferers, and now with mandatory minimum sentencing on the horizon, things could get even tougher in the system for them.

“Mandatory minimum sentencing tells us we can no longer have punishment that fits the crime. Young people in jail are terribly vulnerable to those without the disorder.”

 

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