The federal prison service says it will have a second look at its decision to move convicted killer Paul Bernardo to a medium-security facility as political leaders of all stripes react to the news with shock and outrage.
In a statement, the Correctional Service of Canada says it will make sure the decision was appropriate, based on evidence, “and more importantly, adequately considered victims.”
The service says Bernardo’s crimes were horrific, but it remains mum on the reasons for the transfer from a maximum-security prison.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday he understands how “shocked and appalled” Canadians are at the decision.
Trudeau said that’s why Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino will be raising the matter with the commissioner of the correctional service this week.
Bernardo’s move to a facility in Quebec was made public last week after the correctional service notified the lawyer representing the families of 15-year-old Kristen French and 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy, whom Bernardo kidnapped, tortured and murdered in the early 1990s.
The killer and serial rapist had been serving a life sentence at Millhaven Institution, a maximum-security penitentiary near Kingston, Ont.
Tim Danson, a lawyer for the victims’ families, says it was unacceptable that the prison service refused to answer questions about the reason for Bernardo’s move or details of his custody conditions, citing his privacy rights.
The Correctional Service said Monday it was “restricted by the law in what we can divulge about an offender’s case.”
It added that security classifications are based on risk to public safety, an offender’s institutional adjustment and other case-specific information, including psychological risk assessments.
The statement went on to note that Bernardo, who has been designated a dangerous offender, is serving an “indeterminate sentence” with no end date.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre called on Trudeau’s government to use whatever tools it can to reverse the transfer, while Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Bernardo “should rot in a maximum-security prison for the rest of his miserable existence.”
At a press conference Monday, Poilievre said it was “outrageous” that the prison system had moved the killer to a medium-security institution.
“He should be in a maximum-security institution,” he said. “The government should review any powers it has to reverse this ridiculous decision. Mr. Bernardo is a monster and he belongs in maximum security.”
In a statement last Friday, Mendicino said Bernardo’s transfer was “shocking and incomprehensible,” adding that he planned to raise the issue with Anne Kelly, commissioner of the correctional service.
Danson said he was pleased to see the minister’s reaction.
“Now we need action,” he told The Canadian Press on Sunday. “This is one of Canada’s most notorious, sadistic, psychopathic killers.”
“We need the public in masses, in millions, to be writing to the minister, to the commissioner of corrections, and to the members of Parliament, to express their outrage over this — that secrecy will not work. We want transparency.”
Mendicino said in his statement he expects the correctional service to “take a victim-centred and trauma-informed approach in these cases.”
Danson said the French and Mahaffy families were shocked to hear of Bernardo’s transfer, with the move bringing up decades of anguish and grief.
“Then for me to have to tell them as their lawyer and their friend, ‘I’m afraid I have no answers for you because of Bernardo’s privacy rights,'” he said.
“Of course their response is the one that you would expect: What about the rights of Kristen? What about the rights of Leslie? What about their rights?”
“These are questions I can’t answer other than just to agree with them and share in their despair.”
Bernardo’s dangerous offender status makes the move all the more puzzling, Danson added as he questioned why Bernardo should reap any benefits of being in a medium-security facility with more lenient living conditions.
“We need an open and transparent discussion and debate. These are major, major public institutions paid for by the taxpayers of Canada.”
He suggested the correctional service’s handling of the matter risks leading the public to feel suspicious of the entire system.
“They want to do everything behind closed doors and secretly.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 5, 2023.