The arrest and death last week of Myles Sanderson ended the threat from the perpetrator of Canada’s worst mass stabbing. It was also the moment to start asking hard questions about Mr. Sanderson’s revolving-door journey through this country’s criminal justice system:
Why someone who had 59 convictions, who committed numerous violent crimes, including armed robbery and assaulting a police officer, and was once charged with attempted murder, was deemed by parole officials not to pose an undue risk to society;
Why he was never given more than a two-month sentence after each of the five times he assaulted the mother of his children between 2011 and 2018;
Why a man who went on a violent rampage after his previous release from prison, in 2017, wasn’t considered an undue threat when he came out of prison in August of last year.
Mr. Sanderson was charged with attempted murder in 2015, after he stabbed his in-laws. He pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was given a two-year-less-a-day sentence in provincial prison.
After release in 2017, he went on an even more violent tear. He assaulted his domestic partner (again), beat an accomplice and forced him to rob a restaurant at gunpoint, stabbed two men with a fork, and beat another man into unconsciousness.
During his arrest in 2018, he repeatedly kicked a police officer in the head. He was sentenced to just four years and four months in federal prison.
And in August, 2021, after he had completed two-thirds of his time, he was given statutory release. By May of this year, Mr. Sanderson had stopped reporting in to his parole supervisor and was unlawfully at large.
He was on the run when he and his brother stabbed to death 10 people in and around the James Smith Cree Nation on Sunday, Sept. 4. He killed his brother the next day.
There has been a lot of justified criticism of the fact that Mr. Sanderson spent such short periods behind bars. Most of it has been directed at the parole board, or the policy of statutory release. But releasing prisoners after two-thirds of their sentence is a mandatory feature of the federal justice system. It is designed to reintroduce convicts to society with conditions and support – such as checking in with a parole officer – to give them a better chance at rehabilitation. They’d otherwise go from prison to freedom, overnight. Some form of gradual release is a sound idea.
The real issue is the length – or rather the shortness – of some of the sentences given to Mr. Sanderson. It is shocking that a man could assault his partner, get a brief spell in prison, and then come back to do it again. And again. And again. How did that protect his community?
It’s also reasonable to question the logic of a four-year, four-month sentence for adding to a long record with a crime spree that included beatings, stabbings, armed robbery and assaulting a police officer, when the sentencing judge would have known that, with statutory release, it amounted to less than three years behind bars.
Canada is right to make rehabilitation the goal of the justice system. Except for those sentenced to life and repeatedly denied parole, every inmate will one day be back in society. Sooner or later, all of them will be your neighbours.
But why was Mr. Sanderson repeatedly returned to the community, always sooner rather than later, to prey on his neighbours? How was that justice?
Judges are also right to take into account intergenerational trauma when sentencing an Indigenous person like Mr. Sanderson. Indigenous people are badly over-represented in prison, and every effort needs to be made to ensure they are given the best shot at rehabilitation.
But rehabilitation isn’t a given. The recidivism rate for offenders coming out of provincial prison in Saskatchewan is as high as 73 per cent, according to the federal justice department. At the federal level, 23 per cent of released inmates will be convicted of a new offence within two years, and wind up back behind bars.
Making rehabilitation the goal of the justice system is humane to the offender and beneficial to the public. But what is also in the public interest is giving a small number of repeat, violent offenders long periods of time separated from society. That didn’t happen in the case of Myles Sanderson, and 10 innocent people are dead.