When news broke early in June that Paul Bernardo had been transferred to a medium-security prison in Quebec, many Canadians expressed shock and outrage. I can understand why people were upset. After all, many of us still remember being repulsed by his crimes, even though they happened more than three decades ago.
For those who need a reminder, he was convicted in 1995 of the kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault and first-degree murder of two teenage girls. He was also convicted of manslaughter in the death of his wife’s teen sister. His wife Karla was a willing partner in all three murders but is now free and remarried, thanks to a controversial plea bargain. He also admitted to being the Scarborough rapist, sexually assaulting at least 14 women.
When Bernardo was convicted, he was given a life sentence with no parole eligibility for 25 years. He was also declared a dangerous offender, meaning that he could be kept in prison indefinitely, possibly to the end of his life.
While in maximum security prisons (first Kingston Penitentiary then the Millhaven Institution after the Kingston facility closed down), Bernardo has been treated as a “no contact offender.” That means he spends 23 hours each day in his cell, with one hour of solitary time on the range.
Now that he has been moved to a medium-security facility, it is unclear how his day-to-day routine will change. Both maximum- and medium-security prisons are surrounded by high walls topped with razor wire. They both have guard towers, armed guards and drug-detection dogs. The main difference for inmates is the freedom of movement, access to prison work and educational programming.
While some people are expressing outrage at Bernardo receiving even the smallest amount of leeway from our corrections system, I would ask them to look at the broader picture.
Anyone who is incarcerated in Canada needs to know there is a chance their living conditions will get better if they take steps to rehabilitate. After all, if someone is in jail for an indeterminate amount of time, how do we get them to behave so they are not a danger to those around them? They have to have some hope that if they abide by the rules and take steps to reform that their prison conditions will improve.
That is why Canada does not lock people up forever, as in the United States. Even those accused of horrendous crimes, such as Bernardo, deserve a chance to show that they understand the consequence of their actions and are no longer a danger to society.
When we look at the decision to move Bernardo to a medium-security prison, we have to take emotion out of our equation. The Canadian justice system is not based on emotion. Instead, judges strive to find an appropriate punishment to fit the crime while keeping the focus on rehabilitation and deterring others from committing similar crimes.
We don’t want the U.S. justice system that focuses primarily on punishment. We want to make sure that when people go into custody, they have tools to rehabilitate. Otherwise, offenders will reoffend and society will pay the price.
Of course, not everyone agrees with this position. In a press release not-so-subtly titled, “Conservatives Will Ensure Paul Bernardo Rots in Maximum Security Prison,” Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre states that Bernardo “should rot in a maximum-security prison for the rest of his life.”
The Conservative Party has also put forward legislation to require that all court-ordered dangerous offenders and mass murderers be permanently assigned a maximum-security classification.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford added his voice to the outcry, stating that Bernardo should "rot in a maximum-security prison” for the rest of his "miserable existence."
Thankfully, Corrections Canada takes a different view. In a statement after the transfer was announced, it said, “First, we want to acknowledge that our decisions have an impact on victims. These were horrific crimes and we regret any pain and concern this has caused.
It then adds, “Security classifications and transfers are based on: risk to public safety, escape risk, an offender’s institutional adjustment, and other case-specific information, such as psychological risk assessments.
“Let us be clear that, at any point, an inmate can be placed, or returned to, a higher security level if deemed necessary to ensure the safety of the public or our institutions. And, pending the ongoing review, we will not hesitate to do so, if needed.”
Paul Bernardo remains locked up. Even with the prison transfer, he is still deprived of most of the basic freedoms the rest of us enjoy, as the courts have demanded. But he, and all others behind bars, need a ray of hope that their situation will change if they make appropriate efforts.
I have defended people in courtrooms across the Ottawa region for two decades, working to ensure they receive a fair trial and just sentence. If you, a family member or a friend has been charged with a criminal offence, contact me for a free consultation with no obligation.