Not even this will help

If embarrassment were enough to curb first-timers from committing future crimes, our jails would be underpopulated. Yet a recent shoplifting sentence is depending upon the embarrassment of community service and writing a letter of apology to be a deterrent.

If embarrassment were enough to curb first-timers from committing future crimes, our jails would be underpopulated. Yet a recent shoplifting sentence is depending upon the embarrassment of community service and writing a letter of apology to be a deterrent.

The trial revealed the teen offender, accompanied by a friend, shoplifted a pair of $25 shoes from Walmart. Embarrassment didn’t deter her in front of her friend. Why should writing a letter of apology embarrass her sufficiently to correct her errant ways? The fact she shoplifted with full knowledge of a friend makes me wonder if this was more an act of bravado to win points among a coterie of like-minded peers, just as would-be gang members commit crimes to become ‘one of the boys.’

The public never sees a letter of apology. “Depending upon the wording of a particular court order,” states a spokesperson for the ministry of public safety and solicitor general, “the probation officer may be given direct authority to review and approve apology letters from offenders to their victims.”

“In some cases the court order may limit the probation officer’s authority to confirming that the letter has been written and sent.” But usually, when an offender has to write a letter of apology, the judge will order that the letter must be written to the probation officer’s satisfaction.

“The intent of an apology letter is to convey remorse for one’s actions and the probation officer would review the letter to ensure the content reflects that,” says the spokesperson.

Must a letter of apology  contain a minimum number of words? Certainly, the letter of apology would need enough words to adequately convey the sentiment without overburdening probation officers who are spread thinner than peanut butter on a Jenny Craig cracker. “Sorry. I’ll not repeat my crime” might be insufficient.

How is a probation officer to decide if the letter was written by the convicted person? Does the probation officer take their word, or compare their signature to that on a driver’s licence or passport. Perhaps the court calls on forensic handwriting experts to determine the authenticity of the handwriting.

In today’s electronic world, how novel would it be to cut and paste a letter from the internet? The internet offers sample essays for university and college applicants, why not run-of-the-mill letters of apology for busy crooks? And must the entire letter be handwritten, or just the signature?

Any criminal who has received this sort of sentence many times could keep handy a stack of generic apologies, pre-printed 100 at a time for a reduced rate, leaving blank spaces for the date and the name and address of the scammed store. Cutting corners has to be a necessity when one has been ordered by the court to also do 10 hours of community service in three months. Fitting in such time-consuming orders while calculating which shops are beyond the 100 metre no-go zone of her target store is bound to impinge on weekend partying.

Teens who are sternly dealt with after their first offense are much less likely to re-offend, from what I’ve read. Langford, B.C. has had far less graffiti vandalism since they began civil suits.

In a 2008 case, when the court levied a pittance fine of $350, the municipality sued the parents for $27,500 damages and won, setting a precedent for holding parents responsible.

In 2009, again dissatisfied with a minimal sentence given in a mischief case, Langford sued in civil court. The B.C. Supreme Court sanctioned settlement of about $6,400 damages and 30 hours of community service.

And three teens caught tagging in April 2009 were ordered to  get jobs and pay $l,562 restitution.

Embarrassment is an unreliable deterrent.

Claudette Sandecki lives in Terrace, BC.