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Amended crime bill gives judges power to craft fitting sentences

Depending on whom you talk to, the Conservative Party’s tough-on-crime bill, which would have nixed conditional sentences for more than 100…

Depending on whom you talk to, the Conservative Party’s tough-on-crime bill, which would have nixed conditional sentences for more than 100 offences, has either been “gutted” or improved.

The amended Bill C-9 passed third reading in the House of Commons on November 3.

As originally drafted, it would have hamstrung a judge’s ability to craft an appropriate sentence by taking away the option of conditional sentencing, said Canadian Bar Association’s National Criminal Justice Section member Adrian Brooks.

It would have affected a wide range of offences, from mail theft to attempted murder, and forced judges to choose between prison and probation.

Opposition parties and a throng of legal and non-profit organizations said it went too far in limiting sentences.

The amended bill will only stop the conditional sentencing option for three categories of crime — terrorism offences, criminal organization offences and serious personal-injury offences.

(Section 752 defines a “serious personal-injury offence” as some sexual assaults or an indictable offence using violence or endangering the life or safety of another, which calls for imprisonment of 10 years or more.)

Conservative MPs blasted opposition parties in the House, charging that the Liberal amendments “gutted” the bill and would lead to the “mollycoddling” of criminals.

“It is disappointing to see the opposition so out of touch with Canadians when it comes to tackling crime,” federal Justice Minister Vic Toews said in a statement on October 24, following the original motion to “weaken” the bill.

“Canadian families expect the government to get tough on crime, and our bill followed through on our commitment to do so.

“Property crimes aren’t victimless crimes. Having a car stolen or a home broken into is a traumatic experience. Crimes like these can turn the lives of Canadian families upside down.

“I’m disappointed that the concerns of victims of these crimes don’t seem to have been taken into account,” said Toews.

“It’s a great victory for us,” said Yukon Liberal MP Larry Bagnell.

“The original bill would have taken away a judge’s ability to choose more modern methods, like conditional sentences in the Yukon, which is a far more effective treatment.

“It also would have increased the rate of incarceration of aboriginal people.”

Aboriginal adults make up 74 per cent of inmates in Yukon jails.

Most important is that conditional sentences are still available as a sentencing option for many offences, said Brooks.

“A safe and just society requires we do not incarcerate people unless it’s necessary, and that we trust our judges to find the least intrusive sanction appropriate to the offence and offender once they have heard all the details of a particular case,” he added, noting the association is “satisfied” with the amended bill.

Conditional sentences are served in the community with the offender following strict guidelines such as quitting drugs and alcohol, and meeting curfews.

The sentencing option was introduced in Canada in 1996 to provide judges an alternative to incarceration.

To be eligible for a conditional sentence, an offender cannot pose a threat to the general public, and the offence for which the offender is convicted cannot carry a minimum sentence.

Generally, conditional sentences are not given out for severely violent or sexual offences, said Yukon Legal Aid executive director Nils Clarke.

“The reason conditional sentences will be restricted on a national level are that resources are stretched in places like Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton because there isn’t the money for a probation officer to monitor the conditional sentences to a degree that it is still possible in the Yukon.”

Conditional sentences reduce the rate of incarceration and save the system money, according to figures from StatsCan.

The average cost to keep an inmate in custody reached $51,454 in 2002-03, while keeping an offender in the community costs $1,792 yearly on average.

The average number of offenders on conditional sentences increased two per cent to 9.1 per cent of the adult correctional population in 2004-05, according to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics report Adult Correctional Services in Canada 2004/05.

Having the option of conditional sentencing has lowered the rates of offenders admitted to custody by 13 per cent (or by about 55,000) since its introduction in 1996.

Ottawa estimates that the un-amended Bill C-9 and C-10, which proposes minimum sentences for firearm offences, would see a lot more offenders jailed.

Combined they would have resulted in three per cent (300 to 400) more offenders in federal penitentiaries, and 15 to 20 per cent (3,800) more in provincial/territorial jails, according to a legislative summary.

As the Bill C-9 stands now, jails are still likely to see an influx in inmate populations.

“There’s no doubt there will be more people serving time in jail, rather than being handed conditional sentences,” said Brooks.

He could not comment on how big the influx would be.

The amended Bill C-9 passed third reading in the house on November 3. It must pass the Senate before becoming law.