The Conservative government’s proposed “Omnibus Crime Bill” is notoriously plagued with problems, but one of the most harshly criticized element of the bill is the intention to enact a slew of new mandatory minimum sentences into the Criminal Code of Canada.
Historically, judges enjoyed a lot of discretion in determining sentence once an individual had been convicted of a crime. This made sense, because no two crimes are identical and no two offenders are completely alike. The old sentencing regime gave judge’s the freedom to craft sentences based on the unique attributes of the offender and the circumstances of his or her offence to best accomplish certain goals, such as rehabilitation, deterrence, and denunciation.
Over the years we have seen the implementation of more and more mandatory minimums. One infamous example is the three year mandatory minimum for possession of a loaded restricted firearm, no matter what the circumstances of the offence. This means that a young man with no criminal record and who is otherwise a productive member of his community who had a gun in his possession for a matter of minutes, would, if convicted, be sentenced to spend at least three years in a federal penitentiary – no matter what the circumstances.
The “Omnibus Crime Bill” threatens to create new mandatory minimums for offences such as: drinking and driving, possession, production and trafficking of narcotics (including marijuana), and some types sexual assault.
No matter where critics land in their views on crime control and the need for tough sentences, most informed critics know that mandatory minimum sentences are not the way to go. Without a mandatory minimum there is nothing to prevent a judge from giving a harsh sentence where it is truly deserved, but there is also room for leniency and understanding in our criminal justice system where it is deserved.
To read more about mandatory minimums check out this recent article in the Toronto Star which criticizes the new mandatory minimums for drinking and driving offences: https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2011/11/27/study_raises_doubts_about_effect_of_tough_sentences_on_drunk_drivers.html.
It talks about empirical studies that have been done proving that harsher sentences do not deter individuals from committing the same crime again and also talks about how targeting the causes of crime (addiction, in this case) will have a greater impact on deterrence.