Backgrounder: the "faint hope clause"

With the abolition of the death penalty in Canada in 1976, legislators became concerned that those serving mandatory life sentences would lose all incentive to behave while in prison.

So the Liberal government introduced the “faint-hope clause,” a framework allowing prisoners serving the new tougher life sentences a chance to apply for early parole, pending good behaviour.

Under section 745.6 of the Criminal Code, prisoners serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years can apply for parole under the faint hope clause after 15 years.

The application is reviewed by a judge and then a jury, taking into account factors including the offence itself, character of the applicant, behaviour in prison, and information provided by victims. The jury must unanimously accept the application to grant parole.

In January 1997, the Liberal government amended the legislation to exclude applications from multiple-murderers. But by the time the amendment came into effect, one of Canada’s most notorious serial killers, Clifford Olson, had used the clause to apply for parole.

The hearing was held over the course of four days the following August. Victim impact statements were read aloud in court, and the entire ordeal upset the families of Olson’s 11 victims. It took the jury just 15 minutes to reject the application.

The incident ignited a firestorm of debate about whether the clause should be repealed altogether. It would be the last time a multiple murderer was allowed a parole hearing under the clause in Canada, but other offenders have since applied with more successful results.

Saskatchewan politician Colin Thatcher was convicted of the first-degree murder of his ex-wife JoAnn Wilson in 1984. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.

Thatcher first applied for early parole under the faint hope clause in 2000, but his application was rejected by a jury. Another application was again rejected in 2004.

Still maintaining his innocence, he was granted full parole under the clause in November 2006. He was ordered to attend counselling sessions and report any romantic relationships to the parole board, but was allowed to live on his family ranch near Moose Jaw, Sask.

Former Ste-Foy, Que. police officer Serge Lefebvre was convicted of killing two Quebec City police officers after they caught him committing a robbery in 1985.

He applied for parole under the faint hope clause in 2001 and was granted full parole in June 2002 after serving almost 17 years in prison. He was ordered to attend counselling and live in a halfway house for six months after his release.

Robert Durnford of Corner Brook, Nfld. was one of two men convicted of the brutal sexual assault and murder of 20-year-old Marilyn Ann Newman in 1984. He first applied for parole under the faint hope clause in 2000, but was denied.

He was granted day parole in 2006, and was granted full parole in 2008.

Between seven and 10 offenders reportedly apply for early parole each year under the faint hope clause, and more than 80 per cent of applications are granted.

Of approximately 125 offenders released under the clause since 1987, 15 have returned to prison for various offenses. Three others have been deported, 11 have died and one is at large.

© 2009 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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