Ottawa testing waters for sentencing reform

OTTAWA — The Justice Department wants to know what Canadians think of changing some of the former Conservative government’s controversial tough-on-crime sentencing legacy — including mandatory minimum penalties — before the Liberals bring in their promised reforms.

An online survey asks respondents to judge several scenarios involving mitigating circumstances surrounding a crime, such as a brain-damaged offender whose condition leads to poor decision-making skills, or an offender who acted out of character and has apologized to the victim in court.

Consider, for example, the fictional case of Sarah, a 36-year-old single mother struggling with addiction who was convicted of drug trafficking after she was caught selling some of her prescription opioid pills.

The survey says she had a knife in her backpack, which she claimed was for her own protection, and after she went to jail, her two children were placed with child welfare services because she had no family to take them in.

The survey, conducted by EKOS Research Associates, Inc., says everyone convicted of drug trafficking while carrying a weapon must be sentenced to at least one year behind bars, no matter the circumstances, and then asks respondents whether they believe the sentence is appropriate and fair.

The Liberals have promised legislative changes to mandatory minimum sentences, including at least some of the dozens the Conservatives imposed, or increased, over the decade they were in power.

Proponents of mandatory minimum penalties argue they help ensure consistency in sentencing, while critics have decried them for taking away the ability of judges to use their discretion in handing down a consequence that fits not only the crime, but also the person convicted of committing it.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who said earlier this summer about half the charter challenges her officials are tracking involve mandatory minimum penalties, is expected to introduce legislation this fall.

Ottawa-based criminal defence lawyer Michael Spratt said he is concerned the survey suggests the Liberal government is looking to public opinion, rather than evidence, when it comes to shaping its justice policy.

“Governing your justice policy based on the popular opinion is a dangerous game that potentially could undermine the rule of law and important constitutional protections,” Spratt said.

Yvon Dandurand, a criminologist at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C., said he does not share that view because he knows the Liberal government is doing much more than polling when it comes to its review of the criminal justice system.

“They have done just about everything else to develop a good, rational policy on sentencing so to find out where public opinion lies is just part of that,” Dandurand said.

Kathleen Davis, a spokeswoman for Wilson-Raybould, said the survey, which was not crafted by her office, is part of a broader effort by the department to engage the public on such issues, including focus groups and a more traditional public opinion survey using a randomized sample.

She said other topics they will explore this fall include restorative justice, sexual assault, court delays, Indigenous issues and mental health.

Davis also said she has seen preliminary results of the survey, which she would not release, and that she was surprised by the level of support for repealing mandatory minimum penalties.

“That goes against the narrative that’s out there that the public would not be in favour of that,” she said.

Carissima Mathen, a University of Ottawa law professor, said she would be concerned if the survey results were being used to determine policy, but said it could serve to educate people about “complexities in the criminal justice system,” including how sentencing goes beyond the crime.

NDP justice critic Alistair MacGregor said he hopes the polling means the Liberals are getting closer to acting on their promise.

“I guess at the end of the day, you have to say better late than never,” he said.

— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter

Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press

Just Posted

WATCH: A Russian new year party in Red Deer

Hundreds fill the G.H. Dawe Community Centre for the 10th Russian Children’s New Year Party

Car hits moose north of Red Deer, driver in hospital with life threatening injuries

One person was airlifted to hospital, and another taken by ambulance after… Continue reading

Red Deer’s Ten Thousand Villages to close in 2018

This will be the last Christmas for Red Deer’s Ten Thousand Villages.… Continue reading

Celestial light show can be seen over Red Deer this week

Local students stay up to watch the meteor shower

Businesses to gather to talk about crime

Red Deer Downtown Business Association understands challenges

Watch: Man plays flaming bagpipes while riding a unicycle in a ‘Star Wars’ costume

The sight of Darth Vader, riding a unicycle and playing flaming bagpipes,… Continue reading

Dying man’s wish to see new ‘Star Wars’ movie coming true

A dying man’s wish to see the new “Star Wars” movie is… Continue reading

Bountiful polygamist believed he couldn’t be prosecuted: lawyer

Winston Blackmore’s lawyer says Blackmore did not believe he could be prosecuted

Trudeaus, Mulroneys, Erdem? Canadians who could snag a royal wedding invite

Save the date. Kensington Palace announced Friday that Prince Harry and Meghan… Continue reading

More to be done to ensure timely justice, retiring Beverley McLachlin says

Canada’s retiring top judge says more must be done to ensure the… Continue reading

Labrador mayor who was shot in face in hunting accident has died

John Hickey accidently shot himself while checking rabbit snares

Shelter dogs could go vegan in Los Angeles

Los Angeles may soon be home to a lot more vegan dogs.… Continue reading

The coolest way to serve coffee at dinner’s end

I can put together a decent dinner party. But when it comes… Continue reading

Firefighter dies, thousands more take on California blaze

One of the thousands of firefighters battling a series of wildfires across… Continue reading

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month