Those in grief are often told that “time heals.” But when the pain is caused by serious crime, sorrow can be more like a boomerang.
For victims and their communities, an offender’s lengthy jail sentence may only provide temporary relief until the prisoner is granted parole, placed on statutory release, or completes their full sentence.
While not a new concern, the potential psychological harm caused by a long-serving offender’s return to society is one that an increasing number of communities are facing.
In Canada, the proportion of federal inmates aged 50 and older has doubled over the past decade, now accounting for 25 per cent of the prison population. Half of these offenders are serving a life sentence; many will be released after being incarcerated for decades.
An aged offender’s re-entry into society can open old wounds, especially if they are released to the same community where the crime occurred.
Such collective grief recently resurfaced in Stephenville, a town of about 6,600 on Newfoundland and Labrador’s west coast.
Sixteen years ago, Robert Hilroy Legge brutally murdered his 56-year-old ex-girlfriend, Ann Maria Lucas, in her Stephenville apartment.
The Parole Board noted that (Robert Hilroy) Legge’s most recent psychological assessment suggested a moderate risk for future violence, but ultimately concluded that he would not present an undue risk to re-offend. The board pointed to several protective factors, including Legge’s prosocial activities such as attending church events, reconnecting with family and spending time with friends.
Legge, in his 60s at the time, plead guilty to second degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole for 18 years. The judge acknowledged that Legge would be about 82 years old before he could apply for parole, but concluded that the circumstances warranted this outcome.
In February 2019, less than 16 years after the murder, the Parole Board of Canada granted Legge day parole for six months at a halfway house; in August, this was extended for another six months. Legge had been allowed to apply for parole after just 15 years under the now-repealed “faint hope” clause.
The Parole Board noted that Legge’s most recent psychological assessment suggested a moderate risk for future violence, but ultimately concluded that he would not present an undue risk to re-offend. The board pointed to several protective factors, including Legge’s prosocial activities such as attending church events, reconnecting with family and spending time with friends.
In September, it was reported that Legge intended to visit Stephenville and had applied to live at a co-ed halfway house in the small town.
To protest Legge’s return to the community, local women’s advocates held a march in October. About 300 people attended. Speaking to a reporter, the victim’s niece cautioned, “He broke the conditions of a restraining order and killed my aunt, so why won’t he break the conditions of parole?”
This month, it was reported that Legge’s request to live in Stephenville was denied and that he was residing in St. John’s.
Although the risk of re-offending tends to decline with age, this is not always the case. Indeed, at sentencing, the judge had observed that while Legge’s “physical capabilities may lessen with older age, his ability to cause death or harm by other means will remain a realistic and potential possibility.” The judge concluded that Legge would “likely remain dangerous until he is no longer breathing.”
It is understandable that communities like Stephenville are anxious and resistant when a murderer returns; the passage of time does little to redress the collective trauma caused by brutal crimes.
However, in many cases, the alternatives fall short of what is expected in a fair, just, and humane society. Releasing an older offender to an unfamiliar community may hinder their ability to reintegrate into society as a law-abiding citizen, thus undermining public safety. Indeed, one of the keys to successful reintegration is having adequate social support, especially for those who have been behind bars for decades and may have difficulty coping outside of prison. Lacking support may lead to isolation and feelings of stigma and rejection, which research suggests can lead to hostility, antisocial behaviour, and lack of empathy.
Detaining aging offenders in prison until death can also be problematic. Not only may it jeopardize their rights, it may also pose operational challenges for correctional institutions, which were never designed to be nursing homes.
In Canada, most offenders will eventually be released and become our neighbours again. While it is important to acknowledge the pain of community members and provide them with support, it is also vital for public safety and the protection of offenders’ rights that we offer the best conditions to weave prisoners back into society. In some cases, this may be where they have the strongest social connections and therefore the best hope for success.
Heather Campbell Pope,
Founder, Dementia Justice Canada
Correctional Service Canada (CSC) Citizen Advisory Committee for Metro Vancouver West Community Corrections
(The views are the authors' own and not necessarily those of CSC or the Citizen Advisory Committee.)