NEWS ~ New laws aren't needed, just tougher sentencing

THE EDMONTON SUN (FINAL)
EDITORIAL/OPINION, Page: 16
New laws aren't needed, just tougher sentencing
MINDELLE JACOBS

Using rare-but-terrible cases of crime to drive legislation may be popular with the public and politicians but it doesn't mean it's the best approach.

On Thursday, Edmonton Tory MP Brent Rathgeber introduced a private member's bill that would force judges to consider an assault on a public transit operator an aggravating circumstance for the purpose of sentencing.

The draft bill is named after Tom Bregg, the Edmonton Transit bus driver who was viciously attacked in December 2009 by a young hoodlum after an argument over bus fare.

Because Bregg wouldn't let him ride for free, Gary Mattson exploded with rage, punching him unconscious and throwing him off the bus. Mattson then stomped on Bregg's face 15 times. The former transit driver (he can no longer work) is lucky to be alive. He spent more than two weeks in intensive care and lost sight in one eye.

A judge is currently mulling over whether to declare Mattson, who pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, a dangerous offender. That would put him behind bars indefinitely.

Such a classification is designed for convicts deemed too dangerous to be let back on the streets. Mattson, 25, has a history of violence and I suspect anyone familiar with the case (except perhaps his defence lawyer) would like to see him incarcerated for a long, long time, whether he's declared a dangerous offender or not.

While I understand the sentiment behind Rathgeber's bill, I question the need to tinker with the already complex Criminal Code by adding one particular set of victims -- public transit operators.

Another private member's bill, initiated by NDP MP Peter Julian a while ago, also addresses attacks against transit personnel. Under that bill, anyone accused of murdering a transit worker would automatically be charged with first-degree murder, whether the killing was planned or not.

As it stands now, only people accused of murdering police officers face a mandatory charge of first-degree murder. There's a reason for that. A police officer has a singularly risky job, routinely dealing with the dark underbelly of society -- the most violent and unhinged among us. The rest of us do not have the weighty obligation of protecting society, with all the inherent risks.

Julian's bill would also hike the maximum sentence for aggravated assault against transit workers to an astonishing 20 years in jail. In comparison, the maximum punishment for aggravated assault against anyone else, including police officers, is 14 years.

Transit drivers deserve a safe work environment, like everybody else. But they are not the only people interacting with the great unwashed who are threatened and assaulted.

Nurses, cabbies, social workers, outreach staff and countless others working with a revolving door of clients also face hostility and potentially dangerous situations. Should we amend the Criminal Code for them as well?

And what about prison guards? When they're assaulted, shouldn't their attackers also face 20-year maximums? Then gas station attendants, convenience store clerks and beer store employees will demand special attention in the Criminal Code. They, too, are disproportionately targeted by goons. Where do we stop?

Let's not make the law more complicated. The only people who benefit from that are the lawyers.

We just need a value shift within the judiciary. There are maximum sentences already in the law that judges are typically reluctant to impose. Many of our punishments for serious assaults -- and even homicides -- are laughably light.

It fuels public skepticism about the justice system and it triggers unnecessary efforts to make our Criminal Code even more of a labyrinth.

We already have tough maximum sentences. Let's use them.

mindy.jacobs@sunmedia.ca