Too often an encounter with the legal system is the first step in a long, troubled relationship that sees a life tumble downhill into an increasingly sad end.
But other times it can the beginning of an abrupt change in direction.
That is the case with one man who came before provincial court judge Barbara Flewelling in Campbell River Feb. 22.
“You are a wonderful example of how people can get out of that cycle,” the judge said to Michael Andrew McConechy in a sentencing hearing.
McConechy had been charged with theft under $5,000 for stealing a pair of eyeglass frames from Iris Optical in Campbell River on Oct. 2, 2018. At 10 a.m. that day, he was observed taking a pair of $250 frames and it was caught on surveillance video. Police attended the store after McConechy had left with the frames but he was found later elsewhere in Campbell River and arrested.
Crown counsel Tim Morgan told the court that McConechy has a “not insignificant” record of property crimes but has relocated to Victoria and has been making good use of programs available to people with addictions.
“He appears to be taking steps forward,” Morgan said.
Defence counsel Sarah Runyon told the court that back in November, McConechy applied to have his house arrest program relaxed so he could attend the Second Chance program.
“From November forward, he was doing exceptionally-well in-program; fully-compliant with all terms and conditions,” Runyon told the court.
He then moved on to the Together We Can program. He was back in court in December to apply to relax the conditions further, in light of his progress. McConechy’s handwritten letter to the court at that time “eloquently communicates how proud he is of himself,” Runyon said.
“It can often be difficult for the court and people who have not either personally struggled with addiction or seen that firsthand to understand how difficult that is, after years of addiction, to quit cold turkey without relapse at this point,” Runyon said.
McConechy has re-established his relationship with his mother who is “absolutely elated” with his progress, Runyon said.
McConechy is now more than four months sober and continues to reside at the second stage housing in Victoria and has secured employment starting in May. He also volunteers with the Rees Mental Health & Employment program run by the Cool Aid Society in Victoria.
“His day-to-day is now productive,” Runyon said.
None of this turnaround was a result of anything ordered by the court or probation service, Runyon pointed out.
“It came from within him,” she said. “His life has done a 180.”
McConechy stood at the invitation of the judge and addressed the court.
“I am doing very well,” McConechy told the court.
“Sitting in jail just doesn’t do much for you,” he said.
Generally, you come back out and most likely don’t have housing and you fall back into old relationships but this time he was able to leave those relationships and start a program and actually do the work and get sober, he said.
“You work on changing your life,” he said, not just attend the meetings.
The group home he is living in helps keep him on task and he’s been able to get healthy. During his last appearance in court he sat in the prisoner’s box skinny and shivering from withdrawal.
“I see a healthy young man (now). It’s just quite remarkable,” Judge Flewelling said.
The Crown acknowledged the steps McConechy had taken to get sober and turn his life around. The Crown and defence’s joint submission took the position that jail time is appropriate but the 40 days he has already spent in pre-trial custody should be sufficient. Crown counsel Tim Morgan said that given the success McConechy has had in dealing with his addiction and the success he’s had with counselling programs, more jail would not be of any use.
The judge congratulated McConechy and, acknowledging his volunteer work, told him his experience can be a positive example.
“You will be able to help others who feel trapped,” the judge said. “The law and our courts should always recognize that someone has made incredible effort and progress in their own recovery because ultimately everyone benefits when someone is able to recover and step away from an addiction.”
She said that McConechy not only has the ability to help others but also teach others, not only people in the community but community leaders, “cities, governments, people who need to understand what is needed to help people who are in the throes of the addiction cycle.”