Andrew Lawton

Laying down the Lawton

To err is human; to forgive, divine. Though no one promises the latter to be easy.

When it comes to criminals, we must not only question our own willingness to forgive, but also how that squares up with our legal system and its mandate for justice.

Canada’s justice system – rooted both in civil and common law traditions – attempts to correct wrongs by removing those causing harm to society. But it also attempts to show mercy for those who have run afoul of the law but show remorse and a sincere attempt to redeem themselves.

As much as the media focus on the most heinous of cases, much of what goes before the courts is easily remedied outside of the jail and prison systems, either with fines or community programs.

This happens routinely when people are charged with assault after bar fights or caught shoplifting without prior charges.

But what if someone’s lapse of judgement had fatal consequences?

It did for Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, the truck driver whose mistake behind the wheel killed 16 members of the Humboldt Broncos, a Saskatchewan junior A hockey team.

According to a preliminary report, Sidhu was neither speeding nor drunk nor distracted. He simply erred at the worst time imaginable – as a bus full of teenagers approached the intersection where Sidhu was going to enter with his rig.

In January, Sidhu pleaded guilty to 16 counts of dangerous driving causing death and 13 counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm. He could face up to 14 years behind bars.

He’s not blaming anyone for his actions, nor is he trying to lawyer his way out of responsibility. It was a mature and heartbreaking display to see him plead guilty without equivocation.

There’s no bringing back the 16 players and staff who died that day. Sidhu knows this, as do the victims’ families.

He isn’t an evil man, though it’s understandable how grief and emotion could make someone treat him as one. I don’t judge those who do.

I didn’t have a child on that bus.

As a Christian I’m called to forgive, although it’s much easier to say this in abstract terms than to implement it. Some of the families have expressed grace towards Sidhu. Others seem to want his head on a platter. There’s a general sense of resignation, however, that no outcome will turn back the clock.

Will anyone be better off if Sidhu winds up in prison? There’s something to be said for his conscience weighing more heavily on him than any state-imposed burden ever could.

If we view the justice system as inherently punitive – meant to punish people for their wrongs – then this outcome is desirable. If the system is purely about rehabilitation, it’s hard to argue Sidhu shouldn’t walk free.

For 40 years, Canada has had restorative justice programs, where offenders and victims work together to make things right, often avoiding jail time. The government says recidivism is markedly less likely for restorative justice alumni.

This research suggests forgiveness has as much of a social benefit as it does a spiritual one.

Even so, it’s challenging to appreciate this longer term picture when it looks like someone isn’t being held accountable in the short-term.

Last fall, news broke that child kidnapper and killer Terri-Lynne McClintic had been transferred to an Indigenous healing lodge. After the national outcry, she was returned to a women’s prison by order of the federal government.

Though she’s serving a life sentence, she’ll be eligible to apply for early release in 2024. If she is freed, the only question that should matter is whether the healing lodge or prison would have better equipped her to live the rest of her days without harming anyone else.

It’s only a small sliver of convicts who serve life sentences. For everyone else, reintegration is inevitable. There’s no guarantee it will be seamless. Horrific as the crimes that land people behind bars may be, there are pragmatic reasons to look at the negative impacts of incarceration.

This isn’t coming from a naïve social justice warrior’s perspective. As a conservative, I used to embody the tough-on-crime clichés with gusto. “Lock them up and throw away the key.”

For the most heinous offenders, that punishment still holds. It’s cathartic to take such an absolute stand in response to such evil.

But, it isn’t constructive or compassionate.

Most criminals aren’t in such black and white territory. They are people. Even good people are capable of bad things. Difficult as it is to balance justice with forgiveness, such a balance is critical.

 Andrew Lawton is a columnist for The Interimand a fellow with True North.