How long should terrorists stay in prison?

Are terrorists enough of a danger to warrant long – or indefinite – incarceration once found guilty?

Most nations now have judicial systems where convicted criminals are not sentenced to life in prison (there are of course exceptions which I will discuss in a bit). The notion that a person should go to jail forever for stealing a loaf of bread (yes, I saw Les Miserables!) is passe. And that indeed is a good thing, for several reasons.

Let Them Eat Bread: The Theft That Helped Inspire 'Les Miserables' : The  Salt : NPR
I’d say this loaf weighs 20 years on the galleys!

First and foremost, most crimes do not pose enough of a danger to society to warrant permanent lockup. Nor do most criminals. Secondly, most (?) people are good candidates for rehabilitation and reintegration to society, with the right help and the right programs. Lastly, and purely from an economic standpoint, keeping people behind bars is very, very expensive. In Canada, data shows that the yearly cost for one individual in a penal institution is atmospheric: $120,000 at the federal level and $84,000 at the provincial one.

Are there exceptions however? Absolutely, on at least two counts. Someone who commits a crime, or series of crimes, that is heinous beyond belief (think Charles Manson or Paul Bernardo in Canada) would be seen by just about everyone in the country as deserving a long sentence, and anything short of ‘forever’ would cause a riot. As well, anyone who would continue to commit serious crimes upon release must remain locked up to ensure public safety.

So, what about terrorism?

Most of us have a skewed view of terrorism in our countries, assigning it a much higher risk than it really is. Nowhere, with the exception of Afghanistan perhaps, does it constitute an existential threat to a given society. Still, it is a serious crime and it does merit serious punishment.

So, what have we seen on the world stage in terms of sentences handed down for terrorism? The range varies widely. A Turkish court just gave a PKK terrorist multiple life sentences amounting to 10,276 years – yes ,you read that correctly, 10, 276 YEARS for a March 2016 attack in a popular shopping area and major public transportation hub using an explosives-laden vehicle: 38 people were killed and almost ten times as many injured.

In Austria, in the wake of last week’s shooting rampage by a wannabe ISIS terrorist who had been in prison but released early after he fooled a ‘de-radicalisation’ program, the government announced plans to make it possible for courts to imprison those convicted of terrorism-related offences for as long as they are deemed a threat.

If a mentally abnormal criminal can be locked up for life because he is a threat, then a terrorist who poses a threat can be locked up for life.

Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz

So, not quite 10, 276 years but fairly significant nonetheless. I cannot wait to hear the hue and cry in civil society over this one. Which brings me to my country, Canada.

Our record on terrorism prosecutions is mixed.

In some cases, acquittals have occurred, sometimes on mental illness grounds, sometimes not. In others, individuals were found guilty but released upon sentencing, having been given ‘time served’ as adequate punishment. By my counts, very few are still in jail after having been convicted of (planning) terrorist attacks.

Should it make a difference if the terrorists were stopped BEFORE they struck rather than decide on the fate of any who executed their plot and survived it (it is very hard to jail a successful suicide bomber after all!)? Do those that ‘fail’ pose a lesser threat to society? Is it not possible that they will take their shorter sentences and merely try again? Or is ‘rehab’ really possible with terrorists?

The attack in Vienna and an earlier one in 2019 in London by ‘reformed’ terrorists has led to much angst among our populations and cast aspersion on ‘deradicalisation’ efforts. No one wants to see a successful attack and the only guarantee we will not see one is to keep the perpetrators away from the public. That entails life sentences with no chance of parole. Is that what we want?

Maybe the nature of terrorism – a violent crime that seeks both to impose a system on all of us and to frighten us (hence the root ‘terror’) – warrants stiff penalties. Terrorists are not like bank robbers: the latter want to get in and out with the loot and would really rather not kill anyone. Terrorists want to make us follow their ‘god’- ideological, religious or political – AND kill us. Is that not more serious?

As I cannot see much of a lobby in favour of leniency for terrorist criminals (although there actually is one in Canada), what risk, then, if any, do governments like Austria or Turkey run by imposing draconian sentences?

Not much I’d wager.

So, should Canada follow suit? Interesting question, no?

Phil Gurski

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