Dangerous offender designation evolves
Range of crimes eligible for dangerous status expands
REGINA — The reports span decades; they are uniform in one critical word: “Denied.” Leslie Harold Klassen’s case has been reviewed annually by the National Parole Board (NPB). And for more than 30 years, the decision hasn’t changed: Klassen is too dangerous to be free.
Rarely has he actually been present to hear the NPB’s pronouncement. For years, Klassen has waived his right to actively participate in the reviews, passively protesting the way his case is managed. Or perhaps, he has simply resigned himself to the answer.
“I have taken the position that there is no point in seeing the board. Given that their primary mandate is protection of the public, they cannot release someone who is dangerous without violating that mandate,” Klassen wrote in a letter recently sent to the Leader-Post.
The pensioner prisoner is Saskatchewan’s longest-serving, legally designated dangerous offender. He was 33 years old when his fate was decided in a Saskatoon courtroom. He’d already spent many years behind bars to that point, but he never envisioned how many more were ahead of him. Designated a dangerous sexual offender (DSO) in May 1977 (the same year the law changed to eliminate the DSO and replace it with the current dangerous offender, or DO, law), Klassen was ordered to serve what was then called “preventative detention,” a precursor to today’s indeterminate sentence. The length of the open-ended penalty hinges on what has been for Klassen an elusive, favourable decision by the parole board.
Coupled with the time he served prior to the outcome of his DSO hearing, Klassen is in his 38th year of continuous imprisonment.
In response to an inquiry from the Leader-Post 15 years ago, Klassen wrote, “what I did to my victims was not fair or right.” But he also wondered about the fairness of his own situation. “I see other inmates in here with much more serious crimes than myself . . . and they are serving on average fixed sentences of five to seven years. So you see, treatment or no, good behaviour or no, at least there is an end to their sentences.”
Today, the 66-yearold still looks forward to freedom — someday. But his words also hint at his doubts that the day is any nearer. “I would like to give it (release) a try at some point,” he says in a recent letter. “There are sadly a lot who have given up hope and are just passing time waiting to die.
“I, and others, believe that these sentences should be reviewed every five years by a judge to make sure everything is as it should be legally, administratively, constitutionally, etc.”
There are some who would just as well prefer Klassen and many other DOs rot in prison, but the fact remains that with close to 40 years behind him, Klassen has done more time than many first-degree murderers serving life.
According to his parole reports, Klassen began his “sexually deviant acts” at age 13 when
On Tuesday, the third story in Worst of the Worst series examines the increasing number of dangerous offenders.
he was convicted of indecent exposure and sent to reform school. He built a lengthy record as a flasher and exhibitionist, racking up about 30 charges for indecent exposure and performing indecent acts in public places. But in time, he went from annoyance to threat, and his record grew to include three counts of indecently assaulting females. In 1967 he served his first prison term, three years for a break-in in which he rendered his female victim unconscious by hitting her on the head with a vase.
Klassen’s ultimate undoing was a charge of criminal negligence causing the death of a 15-year-old girl in 1974. Klassen always maintained her death was an accident that occurred in the midst of the two having sex when she fell backward and struck her head on concrete. Klassen, who had been drinking at the time, buried the victim in a snowdrift. The court accepted his guilty plea to negligence, a lesser offence than the murder charge he faced originally, and he was sentenced to six years in prison. Following the sentencing, the Crown made a DSO application, relying on Klassen’s lengthy record and a psychiatric report that said: “If you were at large and under the influence of alcohol, it is probable that sooner rather than later you would engage again in sexual acts involving violence to the point of homicide.”
The irony is, Klassen might have been better off had he pleaded guilty to murder. Back then, murderers serving life terms were eligible to seek parole after 10 years.
Even the parole board has wondered about the duration of his time behind bars, but it has largely held Klassen to blame. Parole reports describe an institutionalized offender who, in the face of rejecting programs and counselling, remains “an untreated, dangerous sex offender.”
“You seem to be content working in the institution. You generally stay to yourself and, although you have said you would like to be released, you do not trust the system and are not prepared to take the necessary programs to deal with your major risk factor,” the board wrote as recently as February this year.
In his letter, Klassen says he wanted proof the programs were specific to his needs and would be of some benefit. “All I get from them now is ‘refused programs’ which I did not do. I only wanted to be sure anything I did would be beneficial and not harmful.”
Asked if he believes he’s served enough time, Klassen declines to answer. “We do not get to decide the length of our sentences for our crimes. We can only hope the judge will impose a sentence proportionate to the seriousness of the crimes,” he says.
Sex offenders targeted
After Klassen, five years passed before Saskatchewan’s courts designated their first dangerous offender under the current law. Declared a DO in 1982, serial rapist Daniel Christopher Probe, like the 15 others who would follow him in the 1990s, was a sex offender. The others included James “Max” Yanoshewski, convicted in a Regina courtroom of sexually and physically assaulting eight women and girls; Louis Barron — also known as Brian Riestad, Allan Warren Hansen and about 50 other aliases — who passed himself off as a preacher in small-town Saskatchewan and preyed on children; and Saskatoon’s Keom Sung Lee, who sexually assaulted a 19-monthold baby girl and her mother.
The pattern of declaring primarily sex offenders as dangerous offenders continued until 2002. That year, Jacob Leroy Andrew Green, a 25-year-old Moose Jaw man who had wreaked vengeance with a knife, became a DO after trying to kill his former girlfriend and her parents.
Even after Green, most of the DOs were repeat sex offenders. While the law had always allowed for non-sexual, violent offenders to also be declared DOs, they were rarely the targets, reflecting, in part, the fact that sex offenders are traditionally some of the toughest offenders to successfully treat.
Shift in late 2000s
In the mid-to late-2000s, defence lawyers began notice a shift in who was joining the ranks of the DOs — repeat offenders with long records primarily for property and driving crimes and breaching court orders, but dotted with violent offences.
“The bar has been steadily lowered, to the point now where it seems that if you’ve got a criminal record for some violence, coupled with unusual behaviour or behaviour that happens to make other people feel uncomfortable, that’s somehow enough,” contends Regina defence lawyer Bob Hrycan.
“I think it’s developed to the point now where the declarations are being made in questionable circumstances,” he adds.
After Green in 2002, Mervin Otto was the first person successfully declared a dangerous offender in this province strictly for non-sexual, violent crimes. The 47-year-old Saskatoon man had originally avoided a DO designation, until the Court of Appeal overturned a lower court decision in May 2006. He had a long record, nearly 80 convictions, mostly for property crimes but also a number of robberies — the worst of which was a hatchet attack on an elderly woman — prompting the DO application. The ruling seemed to open a legal door, and since then nine men who are likewise chronic customers of the justice system have stepped over the dangerous offender threshold.
Judge ponders direction
Among those men is David J. Daniels, who was declared a dangerous offender in Saskatoon after two home invasions. He went to the apartment of two acquaintances and threatened them with a screwdriver and a broken beer bottle in a bid to get money for his drug habit. He returned less than two days later, menacing them again with a screwdriver, and forced one of the men to tie up the other. Daniels’ record stretches to almost 80 offences, mostly for property crimes but with 16 for violence, including robberies and assaults that left his victims with bruises and minor cuts. It was sufficient to establish a pattern and threat to society as required by the DO law.
Recently, while hearing Daniels’ appeal, Justice Georgina Jackson pondered the direction of the dangerous offender law that, since Klassen, has resulted in 48 designations in this province.
She didn’t question that Daniels met the DO criteria or that his crimes were reprehensible, but Jackson wondered if the court must also consider “degrees of violence” in determining if a DO designation and indeterminate sentence is reasonable. Crown prosecutor Tony Gerein replied that there is a threshold, and Daniels had crossed it. The court has yet to rule on Daniels’ case or the appeals of several other men declared dangerous offenders in similar circumstances.
If, as Klassen suggests, being tagged as a DO ensures an uphill climb before the parole board and those who have followed him in recent years could be facing decades in prison, lawyers such as Hrycan are wondering if the right people are being locked up indefinitely.
“It’s a really unsatisfactory state of affairs. It’s the pendulum effect, where we went from hardly ever seeing these applications to the point where they’re almost routine. When somebody’s facing a true life sentence, that shouldn’t be the case,” he says.
“At some point I think we’re going to see the pendulum begin to correct. At some point, some judge is going to say, ‘I’ve had enough.’