While maybe not an entertainer appropriate for the entire family, I am always impressed with comedian John Oliver’s capacity to make obscure topics fascinating as the host of Last Week Tonight.
In one episode, on-point with his tendency to review obscure topics, Oliver looked at minimum sentencing in the United States. This is the notion criminals must receive a minimum punishment in accordance with the criminal acts they have committed. Essentially, it removes a judge’s capacity to issue sentences that are below a minimum threshold. This is an undisputed practice for more serious criminal offences such as murder. However, according to Oliver, expanding this practice to less serious, non-violent crimes can have devastating repercussions.
After watching this piece, I was surprised to find not only were similar laws in place in Canada, but our government is considering reforming them.
To understand the potential benefits of such reform, it is important to look at what the effects have been for our country since the implementation of these minimum sentencing laws only a few years ago.
The intent behind these laws was to reduce crime – the logic being that with stiffer penalties, individuals would be deterred from committing certain crimes. However, evidence shows these desired effects haven’t transpired in practice. In an interview with CBC, Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, suggested such actions from the Canadian government have not accomplished their initial goal.
“There’s no evidence whatsoever that imposing mandatory minimum sentences achieves any of the things that the government said they will achieve.” Paterson explained.
He went on to suggest beyond the lack of results, these minimum sentencing laws had caused additional strain on our prison and judicial systems. According to Paterson, since the implementation of this legislation, the financial cost of the criminal justice system in Canada has increased significantly. This can, in part, be attributed to the overall increase of incarceration rates over the past 10 years leading to more demand for appropriate accommodation.
Additionally, mandatory minimums have been linked to the delay of court proceedings. By extending the number of minimum sentences handed out, those on trial are more likely to continue to fight their charges rather than plead guilty for the lesser sentence.
While there are arguments on both sides about whether this could hinder or help those wrongfully accused, the effects on the court system are evident. After following parliamentary committees and talking with various lawyers and law students, one critique of the justice system is universal.
As University of Ottawa law student and Orillia local Ben Chamberland put it: “There are big issues right now with the court system being backlogged.”
While multiple factors likely have contributed to backlogs in our court system, the implementation of new minimum sentencing laws in the past few years has played a major role, according to Paterson and others.
You might be asking yourself: Who cares if we have a slow system that costs more? What does it matter so long as hardened criminals are being put behind bars? Interestingly enough, these mandatory minimums can have the opposite effect in extreme cases.
Following last summer’s R v. Jordan ruling (incited by extreme delays in the judicial process), new limits were placed on the amount of time provincial and Superior court cases could be delayed. The result has been a slew of cases “thrown out” because the process has taken too long.
There are crimes that deserve minimum sentences. It is even fair to say some of the new minimum sentences in place are justified. However, by giving judges a greater capacity to deliver sentences on a case-by-case basis for less serious crimes, such reform offers the potential for a more cost-effective legal system and much-needed relief in a time of consistent legal delay.
Jay Fallis grew up just outside of Orillia and is passionate about Canadian politics. He recently graduated with a master’s in political science from the University of Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.