Harsher sentences won’t necessarily curb fatal accidents involving drunk drivers, according to the Canada Safety Council.
In the wake of public cries for harsher sentences, the Ottawa-based safety council commissioned a study by two University of Ottawa law professors.
Existing punishments are not lax, the professors wrote.
“This big outcry, that all these people are being given ‘soft sentence’ and this is ‘a travesty of justice,’ it just isn’t true,” said council spokesperson Ethel Archard.
“Very few people get these sentences that involve house arrest.”
Despite these findings, the new federal Justice minister, Vic Toews, has announced a review and possible elimination of certain sentences.
Specifically, conditional sentences, which have only existed in Canada since 1996, are being examined by the Conservative Party, which is wary of what it considers lax sentencing.
And conditional sentences continue to be a source of public controversy.
Essentially, a conditional sentence is a jail term that can be carried out in the community and is accompanied by some strict conditions.
These commonly include house arrest, limitations on mobility, bans on alcohol and mandatory meetings with a sentence supervisor.
If the convict breaks the rules, the remainder of the sentence is usually carried out inside a correctional centre.
During the lead-in to January’s federal election, lobby groups called on Ottawa to ban conditional sentences for certain kinds of crime, such as drunk driving in cases where crashes have killed or injured people, and crimes involving firearms.
Toews has publicly supported that approach.
“(He) is in favour of removing conditional sentences on impaired-driving offences,” said Patrick Charette, Toews’ spokesperson, from Ottawa.
At this point, though, there are no specifics.
“All of the details, obviously, we’ll have to discuss in cabinet,” said Charette.
While conditional sentences are not facing total elimination, Toews is looking at “streamlining” and limiting their use.
“The much broader perspective of conditional sentencing as a whole, this is also something the minister really wants to consider,” added Charette.
“He’s been quite vocal with regards to the use of conditional sentences in different scenarios, different cases.”
Narrowing the number of available punishments does not improve public safety, said the council in an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“Critics who know only of the offence and the penalty often do not realize there are other important factors to be considered at sentencing,” the council wrote.
“The bottom line: for crimes related to impaired driving, removing sentencing options could compromise public safety.”
The organization went public with its concern because the hype surrounding loose sentencing was unfounded, said Archard from Ottawa.
“It sounded, from what (the lobby) was saying, that these sentences are very lenient and they’re used all the time,” she said.
“Well, in fact, they’re not very lenient and they’re hardly ever used.
“The whole impression that’s given is that this is too soft a sentence for someone who has killed or seriously injured someone.
“What our study found is that’s a completely wrong view of how conditional sentences are used, what they’re purpose is and how strict they can be.”
Between 2003 and 2004 in Canada, nine conditional sentences were handed down following 53 fatal collisions that involved drinking, the study said.
Following 339 accidents in which drunk driving led to serious injury, 84 people were given conditional sentences.
“It’s very selective,” Archard added. “These are not individuals that have lots and lots of prior convictions. Given the circumstances and their character, they are good candidates (for conditional sentences).”
Just because a jail term is spent behind bay windows, rather than barred windows, doesn’t mean it’s easier to serve, according to Lydia Bardak, a regional director with the John Howard Society, which advocates for convict rights.
“Mentally, if you’re in jail you know you’re in jail and you have a completely different frame of mind,” said Bardak.
“Your life goes on hold while you do that,” she said in a phone interview from Yellowknife.
“Being at home while you’re in jail, I think that’s tougher psychologically to deal with — the fact that your freedom is restricted, because you still feel like you’re in your normal environment.”
In small communities, people also police themselves, she added.
Even when a person leaves the house for a legitimate reason, like a doctor’s appointment, police will often be called.
Conditional sentences are usually used to punish property crime, said Bardak.
In NWT these sentences are often used for first time and young offenders, she said.
“(Judges) would use it where they see a person has made a mistake but, at this time, is not on a career path of criminal behaviour.
“If they’re repeatedly offending, I can’t even imagine the judge using that as an option.”
Specifically in cases of impaired driving, the nature of the crime may sometimes merit a different kind of sentence, she said.
Drivers often lose a spouse, child or someone they know in the accident.
“They live with that always. They know they’re actions have caused the death of somebody.”
The trouble with focusing on punishment is that people tend to lose sight of society’s bigger goals, said Archard.
“The priority should be to protect the public by somehow preventing these people from re-offending when they finish their sentence.”
This is why the safety council has waded into the debate.
Rather than focusing on locking-up individuals, Canadians should be concerned with how to prevent convicted drunk drivers from grabbing the bottle and revving the engine again, the council said.
“We want approaches that will save lives and prevent injuries,” said Archard, noting that convicts will end up back in society eventually.
“What we have to look at is which approach is most appropriate? What would be the ramifications, of one or the other, in terms of how that individual will behave when they finally are released from house arrest or prison?”
Giving the best possible sentence means allowing judges to do their jobs, said Bardak.
“Our politicians make our laws. In terms of judgments on offenders, that’s the judges’ responsibility not the politicians’ responsibility,” she added.
“How can (judges) be impartial if they’re having to act for the politicians?”
Leaving judgments to judges leaves politicians and communities with plenty of work, she added.
“While the law is there to deal with those who’ve broken the law, I think the community is there to deal with the problems in our community,” said Bardak.
“(Drunk drivers) need to find their way and we need to have the supports in place to help them when they’re ready to do that.”