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August 16, 2004

M.P. Svend Robinson's Diamond Theft; Crime in Canada

From the National Post, August 7, 2004.

Former MP Svend Robinson yesterday admitted in court that he stole an expensive diamond ring during a time of "devastating stress," but the judge ruled that losing his long-time job and suffering "public vilification" were punishment enough. The judge handed him a conditional discharge, meaning Mr. Robinson will not have a criminal record or serve any jail time.

The judge said,

"The end result is that Mr. Robinson needs help. He's fallen a long way. He has embarrassed himself. Further, he is always going to be remembered for this. This is not going to go away. As I say, the public, at least in Canada, I think, has always lived by the guiding principle: You don't kick somebody when they're down. Mr. Robinson is down."

...

Before he was sentenced, Mr. Robinson made a short statement to the court in which he said the ordeal has been a "shattering experience," that he recognizes the seriousness of his offence, and that it was "devastating" for him not to seek a seventh-straight seat in June's federal election.

"I feel a deep sense of remorse and shame for my totally unthinkable actions. I want to tell your honour that this isn't who I am and I am taking every possible step to ensure that this terrible mistake is never repeated."

A joint statement of facts admitted by the Crown and defence said Mr. Robinson was suffering from an unspecified strain when he stole a ring, valued by the Federal Auction Service at $64,500, from a jewelry auction in Richmond, B.C., on Good Friday, April 9.

...

Special prosecutor Len Doust suggested the value of the ring, Mr. Robinson's unusual behaviour at the auction after the theft, and his four-day delay in reporting the crime to police should culminate in a conviction. Mr. Robinson's detractors, Mr. Doust said, would say he was nothing more than a "common thief" who had earlier been shopping for a diamond ring for his partner, Max Riveron.

... probation for one year, and ordered him to attend psychological counselling and perform 100 hours of community service.

Mr. Ruby submitted 21 letters of support to the court, some of them written by Mr. Robinson's political opponents. The authors included Conservative deputy leader Peter MacKay, Liberal MP and Cabinet minister Stephen Owen.

A later op-ed tells us more about Robinson. In my words:

1. He was a leading MP in the leftwing NDP party.

2. He demanded an end to "Iraqi genocide" in 1999-- attacking not Saddam, but the UN sanctions against him.

3. In April 2002, he went to the Middle East to express his solidarity with Yassir Arafat, which resulted in his being dumped as NDP foreign affairs critic.

4. He said, "If we are to keep our country sovereign, we must vigorously resist any further American economic, military, or social domination in Canada."

5. He is homosexual.

6. He told the police about stealing the $64,000 ring four days after stealing it. I couldn't find out whether the police were already on his trail or not-- something which seems to me crucial in deciding whether his release without a conviction was just. My guess is that they were on his trail, though. I find it hard to believe that if a customer came back to a jeweller and gave back a ring, saying he had slipped it into his pocket by mistake, that the jeweller would initiate a prosecution.

Barbara Yaffe, [email protected], had more to say in an August 14 op-ed in the Vancouver Sun. She said

But how would society have benefited from putting Mr. Robinson behind bars? He's unlikely to re-offend. The public isn't at risk.

The deterrence factor isn't terribly relevant because potential criminals are hardly likely to identify with Mr. Robinson who is in a unique situation, eing a veteran politician and international crusader for causes.

I hope Yaffe would change her mind if she thought about the implications of the policy she is proposing. Here it is, in my words:

Prominent leftwing politicians may each steal one item of up to $64,000 in value without being punished. They may, in fact, steal an unlimited number and keep the items if they are clever enough not to get caught, but if they are caught, they must return the item, and are in peril of some punishment such as probation or a fine if they are caught again.

The rational response of politicians would be for each of them to steal as many $64,000 items as they can up to the first time they get caught, and then, perhaps, to stop. Yaffee seems to think that it is working-class stiffs who need the law to deter them from grand larceny. It is odd that after the events of the previous year any Canadian would not realize that it is the prominent liberal politicians, not the average voter, whose moral principles are weak enough that they need the threat of jail to stop them from stealing.

And, I think now, my description of Yaffe's "One Free Grand Larceny" policy actually overstates its severity. Recall that Robinson "will not have a criminal record". If that means anything, it means that if he steals a second time, he cannot legally be sentenced as a two-time offender. The court, I would think, will be obliged to close its eyes to the first offense, as having been deleted from his record, and treat him as a first-time offender. He then will be able to make the same arguments as he did this time, and if he faces the same judge, he will again escape punishment or a criminal record. So what this really amounts to is an exemption from the criminal law. The only penalty for theft for a politician is that the voters may choose not to re-elect him (and the victim will be able to get back the takings, via civil suits).

In my brief stay in Canada, I've noticed a fear of crime that I haven't seen living in Bloomington, Indiana, or even during my one year in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There are lots of police cars around; gated communities; even more crime in the newspapers and on TV than in America; lunch discussions of the everyone's car-theft experiences; the "bait car" posters that I posted on earlier; talk of the influence of the Hell's Angels and the huge magnitude of the drug trade; checkout clerks checking credit card signatures more suspiciously. I don't know if crime is higher in Canada than in the U.S., but I do sense that fear of crime is higher. Is this due to lack of punishment?

Posted by erasmuse at August 16, 2004 08:19 PM

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