Twenty years ago, at the age of 15, Ellard smashed 14-year-old Reena Virk’s head against a tree and then held her head underwater near a Victoria-area bridge until she stopped moving.
On Thursday, the now-35-year-old was granted day parole for six months, once she completes a treatment program for substance abuse. Shocked at the news, Virk’s family said Ellard has never shown enough remorse for her heinous actions.
Parole is one of the key pillars in the Canadian justice system to rehabilitate offenders who have been handed life sentences, also known as “lifers.”
“It’s in everyone’s interest that people come out of prison eventually and be in a better place than when they went in,” said UBC law professor Debra Parkes.
“If people don’t have anything to aim for in prison, and have no prospect of release, the evidence shows that those kinds of prisons are quite dangerous places.”
Rather than drawing on resources by simply being warehoused, Parkes said, offenders can contribute to society through being released, gaining employment and paying taxes.
“At an abstract level, it makes sense to have people in for long periods of time,” she said. “But when you look at the real people on the ground, you see things a little differently. And I think that’s why most people are released on some form of parole.”
Parole often misunderstood: prof
Ellard had been eligible to apply for parole in 2013. She didn’t apply until 2016, and was denied. Last February, she was given permission to take temporary escorted trips to parenting programs and doctor’s appointments with her infant son.
Under her new conditions, she will be allowed to walk free by day, but have to return each night to a community facility or treatment centre. As part of her life sentence, she could be sent back to prison if she breaches any of her conditions.
“This is often a misunderstanding of the public, I think,” Parkes said. “Every single person who’s convicted of murder in Canada will be under a life sentence for the rest of their natural life.”
As for the risk of a convicted murderer committing crime again, Parkes said statistics show violent offences make up less than one per cent of reasons why lifers end up back behind bars.
“The reality of Ms. Ellard’s situation is that she has done at least as much [time] as we expect adults to do, even when they commit the offence when they are adults,” Parkes said.
Referring to it as “aging out of crime,” Parkes explained that rehabilitation, when it pertains to young offenders, also has to consider the neurological development of the frontol cortex – the part of the brain responsible for decision making.
“The ability to understand the implications [of an action] and fully reason out any decision made – that isn’t developed until people are in their 20s,” Parkes said.
Though a teenager at the time of the murder, Ellard was given an adult sentence, due to the nature of the offence and its high-profile.
“We do recognize that over time, people do address the issues, they get older, things change – a lot of crime is actually committed when people are young,” Parkes said.
Canada parole fares as ‘harsh’ compared internationally
The public’s perception that Canadian law carries lenient sentencing on crime is often compared to incarceration legislation in the U.S. which incudes life without parole – otherwise known as natural life imprisonment – and the controversial death penalty still legislated in 31 states.
But compared to European countries, Parkes said, Canada has a rather strict reputation on granting parole.
When the country abolished capital punishment 40 years ago, she said, the average number of years spent in prison for a convicted murderer was 15 years before parole. Today, the average is well more than 28 years.
“Parole boards are very careful in these decisions,” Parkes said, despite public perception. Board members look at how much process has been made in an offenders “correctional plan,” and expect a clean institutional record.
And if taxpayers don’t care about the human component of incarceration, they may care about the cost associated with it compared to re-integration: roughly $200,000 per year.