Jail not the answer

On June 1, 31-year-old Brian Wallace was given a two-year conditional sentence in the community and a five-year driving ban after pleading guilty to dangerous driving causing death and refusing a breathalyser — Winnipeg was outraged.

On Oct. 31, 2007, Wallace had been driving 136 km/h through a residential neighbourhood after spending the night drinking. The man ran a stop sign and crushed another car as it drove through the intersection. The driver of the other car, sixty-three-year-old Therese Hadley, died of massive trauma as a result of the crash.

Following the publication of Wallace’s sentence by Winnipeg media outlets, public outrage quickly erupted, expressed largely via online comments with readers demanding tougher sentences for such offences.

The federal Conservatives have recently passed legislation making it more difficult for individuals convicted of violent offences to be eligible for a conditional sentence, but Wallace’s offence occurred just weeks before the legislative changes were made.

Offenders like Wallace should be held accountable for their actions. Accountability, however, does not have to mean imprisonment, which is what the public frequently demands — but society would not have benefited from the incarceration of this man. Wallace did not set out to kill his victim, had no previous criminal record, expressed remorse and pleaded guilty to the offence. The Winnipeg Free Press also reported that he has been on bail in the community for more than three years without re-offending.

We should only be incarcerating individuals who pose a real danger to the community, and Wallace has demonstrated that he is no longer a danger.
According to the Winnipeg Free Press, Wallace is working full time as a painter, is married with two children and his wife is expecting their third. He is attending counselling for his alcohol abuse issues and claims to have remained sober since the crash.

Placing this man in prison would unnecessarily break up his family, leaving his children to grow up without a father and would leave his wife in the position of suddenly having to raise three children on her own. Furthermore, Wallace was described by family members as a “kind, caring and giving person.” He made a very poor decision by driving impaired and must now carry the burden of this tragedy for the rest of his life; should that not be considered part of his punishment?

The conditions placed on Wallace as part of his sentence are strict and include a 24-hour daily curfew, abstaining from the consumption of alcohol and completing 240 hours of community service work, in addition to a five-year driving ban. A community-based sentence does not mean this man is getting a slap on the wrist for the offence he committed, even though the public generally perceives such sanctions to be lenient in comparison to prison. Working to address one’s alcohol issues is not an easy task. In fact, I feel it is probably more challenging than sitting in a prison cell all day.

The Conservative government’s “get tough on crime” rhetoric will likely prove ineffective at reducing and preventing crime, as it is based upon fear and ideology as opposed to evidence.

Putting this man in prison would not bring the victim back, or relieve the family’s pain of losing her.

Harsh sentences are not always necessary when a victim dies as a result of a crime and I believe that when substance abusers receive the help they need in a community-based setting, are working to address their issues and are being productive by contributing to society, society benefits in the long term and the public is better protected.

Brittany Thiessen is a criminal justice studies student at the University of Winnipeg.

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