A view of the courthouse building in Yellowknife. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Warning: This report contains details from a court case which readers may find disturbing.
A man who beat up his girlfriend then sexually assaulted her mother needs far more treatment and counselling than is available in the territory’s corrections system, a lawyer argued this week.
On Monday, during the first part of a sentencing hearing for his 30-year-old client, Peter Harte said tough sentences to deter others are not working.
“It’s clear the general deterrence message does not appear to be making a difference with respect to crime rates,” he said.
“Indigenous offenders, coming from poverty, addictions, and difficult family situations, are not in a position to say, ‘I have a job, don’t lock me up.’
“Criminal records are the product of socio-economic factors that bring people in contact with the law. They can conceal a strong bias in the criminal justice system.”
Harte argued the existing Criminal Code provisions don’t allow for truly rehabilitative sentencing options, with jail often the only option for courts to consider. This is especially true, he said, for people on the margins of society.
“We’re dealing with individuals who have found themselves in conflict with the law for a host of reasons that make criminal records predictable and, at the very least, explainable,” said Harte.
Harte accused the territorial government of failing inmates who want to help themselves by not providing adequate levels of assessment and programming behind bars.
Harte’s client – who legally cannot be named, as it could identify his victims – has a lengthy criminal record including impaired driving charges, breaches of court orders, and three assaults.
The court heard the man is an Inuvik resident who likely has a form of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. He was taken from alcoholic parents and placed in a troubled foster home, and was himself sexually abused by a relative.
He is taking what limited programming is available while behind bars, said Harte, who said the man’s outlook would be brighter if the North Slave Correctional Complex (NSCC) wasn’t down to one, half-time psychologist.
Harte noted the 2015 Report of the Auditor General of Canada revealed serious deficiencies in case management and a limited ability to offer programming that could help rehabilitate the territory’s jail population.
The man pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily harm and sexual assault following an earlier, preliminary hearing in Inuvik.
Victim ‘suffered nightmares’
Crown prosecutor Alex Godfrey said the man had been drinking with his girlfriend and her mother on March 8, 2018, at the latter’s house in Inuvik. The couple then left, continuing to drink at the man’s house.
They began to argue, the woman being accused of infidelity. When she tried to leave, the man struck the woman in her face, giving her a black eye.
She left for a friend’s house and her boyfriend went back to her mother’s house, where he found the mother sleeping on a mattress in the living room.
He sexually assaulted her, said Godfrey, before she chased him away with a bat.
Godfrey called for a sentence of between 2.5 and 3.5 years, minus time spent in pre-trial custody. Harte called for a sentence of two years, minus pre-trial custody, followed by probation with an order for trauma and substance abuse treatment.
Godfrey said the mother has suffered from the sexual assault.
“[She has lost] all trust in any of her children’s male friends, she does not allow any males in her homes except her boyfriend,” he said. “She suffered nightmares for a few months.”
Godfrey said the woman was relieved to hear the man had pleaded guilty and that she wouldn’t have to testify at trial.
“[The man] seems to show some insight and awareness into how and why he ended up before the court and what issue he will hopefully leave behind if he is to become a contributing member of society,” said Godfrey.
“Obviously there is significant public interest in denouncing and deterring this type of behaviour.”
Harte said his client has no recollection of what happened on the night of March 8, 2018, as he had been on a lengthy drink and drug binge, but is willing to believe his victims’ accounts.
When asked if he had anything to say, the man told the judge through his lawyer he wanted to turn his life around, but he needed treatment – especially to help him address the sexual abuse he faced as a young teenager.
“I need to see somebody about what happened to me as a kid,” Harte read from a statement by his client.
“I want to say I’m sorry [to the victims]. I don’t want to be like this when I get out … I can’t go back to drinking. I can’t survive without treatment.”
‘A major concern’
In delivering her sentencing decision on Wednesday, Chief Justice Louise Charbonneau noted the man’s Indigenous background and troubled upbringing.
The Gladue principle, named after Cree woman Jamie Tanis Gladue, requires judges to take into consideration circumstances facing Indigenous peoples in order to arrive at an appropriate sentence.
“In many, many sentencing principles in this jurisdiction, these principles are engaged,” she said. “It is clear that sadly, as with so many in this jurisdiction, he grew up in an environment marred by alcohol abuse and dysfunction – through no fault of his own.”
She noted the two victims in this case are also Indigenous and they “grew up facing the same systemic and background factors [their attacker] faced … and now, on top of whatever challenges they lived with, they have to deal with the additional trauma and harm arising from what happened to them.”
Regarding Harte’s complaint of lacking resources in correctional facilities, Charbonneau said if people are just “warehoused” without access to counselling or therapy, lack of rehabilitation is “a major concern” as it does not help the inmate nor protect the public.
“I’m sure [the man] and others in the correctional system need a lot more … psychological help, for example. We often hear that is something needed and wanted by detainees, but it is not easily available. It is disheartening, to say the least, to hear that NSCC is down to one-half of one psychologist,” she said.
“But those are not things the court has any control over. As far as how the executive branch organizes its budgets and its resources and its programs – that is completely outside the court’s control.”
Charbonneau also questioned the extent to which tough sentences have curbed crime.
She said the prospect of facing a long period of incarceration “will probably not stop most intoxicated or dysfunctional people from acting in certain ways … it is difficult to imagine that such a person would think about a potential sentence and, because of that, refrain from committing the offence.”
Charbonneau ultimately sentenced the man to two years for sexual assault and six months for assault causing bodily harm – to be served concurrently, meaning at the same time.
With a credit of one year for his time in pre-trial custody, that means the man has a sentence of one year to serve.
That will be followed by two years of supervised probation, during which he will take whatever counselling is offered to him, including for substance abuse and trauma.
He will be on the sex offenders’ registry for 20 years and will have a no-contact order with his former girlfriend and her mother – though, if they agree in writing, he will be allowed to apologize to them, as he requested.
“I have imposed a jail term much shorter than I was originally thinking,” said the judge, “but I made the probation period longer because I’m hoping that will be a better mix for you – and your community.”