Life Sentence

Over-reporting on some criminal cases could increase the stigma against offenders, who are frequently homeless, mentally disabled, or among a racial minority. Illustration by Christina Dommer.

Can convicts, having served their sentence, ever get a fair shake from the news media?

By Christina Dommer

Early in January, Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum released a statement from his office, criticizing the RCMP and Parole Board of Canada for granting day parole to Gary Jagur Singh, a man convicted of raping 11 women.

“For the safety of the people of Surrey, I believe that our residents need to be told where this prolific sexual predator is residing in Surrey,” wrote McCallum in the Jan. 10 release. “That information should be made available immediately.”

But Singh, also known as the Marpole Rapist, had committed those crimes 30 years ago, and had already served 26 years in prison. Was McCallum’s reaction justified, given that Singh’s release was going to happen eventually?

According to Rhiannon Wong, the question of how parolees are treated by the media is a thorny one.

“[Imagine] if you took the worst thing you’ve ever done and everyone got to know about it—and they got to know nothing else about you,” says Wong, a volunteer with Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA), an organization that supports sex offenders attempting to reintegrate into society.

Wong was a criminology student at Simon Fraser University when she came across the COSA program; she completed her master’s thesis on sex offender alerts in the community and the unexpected consequences that can arise from them.

Today, she regularly sees hardened criminals in tears of gratitude for COSA—in disbelief that ordinary people would voluntarily care about them.

“They either very rarely or almost never had someone care about them in that way,” she says

In her thesis, Wong uses the example of sex offender James Conway—who, throughout 2014 and 2015, preyed on underaged girls, often luring them from SkyTrain stations.

When he was relocated from jail into an Abbotsford halfway house in 2015, a local vandal came into the attic with a hose and managed to flood the house, damaging the ceiling.

“The news reported on [Conway] so much that he was a victim of vandalism,” Wong says. “You’ll get reports that this guy is dangerous, and he’s reoffended so many times, but they won’t go into: ‘Also, the guy has an ankle bracelet, and he’s on house arrest, and he’s escorted everywhere and never let out of sight.’ So his risk is theoretically almost zero.”

When these offenders have their names back in the news, Wong says, potential landlords and employers can easily look them up—making it even harder for them to get housing or work. The average media consumer wouldn’t know the range of personalities and circumstances that Wong encounters at her COSA meetings. She’s worked with offenders who have PhDs, as well as those who’ve been on the streets since they were kids.

“I truly believe that we are creating safer communities, because I believe the way to create safer communities is by helping people, not stigmatizing and punishing them,” Wong says.

Dustin Godfrey, a reporter for Burnaby Now who covers crime and the courts, says that there’s a lot that the media overlooks when it comes to the criminal justice system. He thinks that a discussion about how our corrections system can do more harm than good is only now starting to happen. “The vast majority of people who are in jail have childhood trauma, have mental health struggles, have developmental disabilities,” Godfrey says.

People reading the news rarely know where these parolees are coming from, according to Godfrey.
The public is increasingly supportive of rehabilitating prisoners, but correctional facilities don’t have the resources to do it. “The services are lacking if they’re there at all,” Godfrey says. “Some of the people who are offering some of the programs in jail aren’t necessarily trained psychiatrists or therapists. They’re corrections officers who might’ve taken some kind of course.”

Today’s media industry is pushed by the internet “to constantly have content,” says Godfrey; reporters cover news releases from the police to fulfill their assignments—and, he adds, he’s hardly exempt from this trend. Wong says that going in-depth into a success story would help ease some of the stigma associated with parolees— however, she doesn’t see this happening any time soon. “No one would be interested, so they’re not going to do it,” Wong says.

Both Wong and Godfrey agree that media could do a better job reporting on cases like Conway’s or Singh’s by telling audiences more about the decisions and factors behind an offender’s sen-tence. Godfrey also suggests that reporters highlight those offenders who undergo restorative justice in their sentencing.

“There’s a growing movement of restorative justice and talking about why that’s successful when jails have a far higher recidivism rate,” he says. “We think that people need to be punished rather than rehabilitated. The media has a role in showing why that can be a damaging perspective.”

To see an infographic on public perception of the criminal justice system, click here.

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