Pine Box Parole | David Dorson

By David Dorson

Law360 Canada (October 18, 2022, 10:56 AM EDT) --

It is human nature to be angry, disgusted and afraid when we hear about behaviour that we feel violates our social norms. That’s the main reason there is so little public sympathy for people charged with criminal offences, even before the evidence is known.

That is also why political parties in Canada tend to be “tough on crime” even when evidence tells us clearly that those policies (such as more arrests and harsher punishments) don’t work and are likely to make our society less safe, not more. 

It also seems to be in our nature to be fascinated by crime. Hence the proliferation of books, movies, TV programs and podcasts, and the preoccupation of media everywhere with reporting crimes, with particular emphasis on the most sensational and hence least common of them. 

The bad results of these twin focuses are manifest in John Hill’s book, Pine Box Parole (Durville and Uproot Books, Calgary, 2022). Hill, who had a long career as a criminal lawyer, including a lot of work with people already in prison, tells a number of stories of sensational crimes and criminals with whom he had a personal connection. He reveals aspects of the people and cases that were not much reported, and shows how each of these cases was far more complicated than the dominant narrative.

As Hill puts it, “Because of my work, I realize that there are inequities in not only our laws but more so in the way they are applied that can result in our society being less safe.”

About half the book is given to the story of Terry Fitzsimmons, who killed three people while on parole in 1993. The other half includes six more cases, including Clifford Olsen, one of the worst mass murderers in Canadian history, and Inderjit Singh Reyat, who served many years in prison for a relatively minor role in the terrible Air India bombing of 1985.

Hill tells each story in a way that tries to be fair to all parties. He never minimizes the crimes of those convicted. At the same time, the cases illustrate some problematic aspect of the way criminal justice happens in Canada. For example, Fitzsimmons, who came from a very troubled background and got into legal trouble very young, spent endless months in solitary confinement for no apparent reason before his release and the subsequent murders. Stanley Faulder was executed in Texas even though he had had a traumatic brain injury as a child that led to all kinds of difficulties in his life and was convicted on dubious testimony. Reyat spent decades in prison in part, Hill suggests, as a scapegoat for the failure of authorities to convict those who were the main culprits in the bombing.

One of Hill’s points is that the justice system is wrong in presuming that each individual bears all the responsibility for her or his actions. Many if not most crimes, he argues, are a combination of individual and social factors, and can only be addressed properly if we take account of both aspects. The system, he argues, is too quick to punish, too slow to understand and try to help, and too closed to public scrutiny.

In the case of Fitzsimmons, Hill argues that “it was the Correctional Service of Canada that had taken a young man and, through the use of solitary confinement, had created a monster that led to the loss of life for several individuals.” 

“The CSC … had relied on solitary confinement as a rehabilitative tool. It was not. They had failed to provide the necessary programs to have a young man treated and reformed. They had not carefully evaluated a release plan …. The prison system drove Terry crazy.”

Hill was among the first to argue in court that solitary confinement in Canadian prisons was highly damaging and its use should be dramatically reduced if not eliminated. Canadian courts have now agreed with that view, though it appears that the Liberal government’s attempt to address this problem has not led to any real change

Hill also argues, consistent with my experience, that “[p]rison walls and fences are as much to keep public interest out as they are to keep prisoners in. Most criminal defence lawyers lack other than cursory knowledge of what goes on after a client is convicted and led away from the courtroom to begin the sentence.” Similarly, many judges seem to have little idea of the realities that await those they sentence 

Each of Hill’s cases is a fascinating story in its own right. The stories are full of human frailty, not only of those who committed the crimes but of others around them as well, including family members, police, prosecutors, defence lawyers, the media and others involved in the cases. Taken together they show a system that can regularly fail to consider the full story, or the welfare of all the people involved. The result is far from the ideal of “justice.”

David Dorson is the pen name of someone who went through arrest, case disposition, imprisonment and parole in Ontario a few years ago. The Lawyer’s Daily has granted anonymity because he offers a unique perspective on a subject that matters deeply to many readers, and revealing the author’s identity would make re-establishment in the community after serving his sentence much more difficult than it already is.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's firm, its clients, The Lawyer’s Daily, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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