Pubdate: Tue, 19 Apr 2016
Source: Edmonton Journal (CN AB)
Page: A8
Copyright: 2016 The Edmonton Journal


When it comes to Canada's criminal justice system, the popular 
political play in recent years has been to follow in the footsteps of 
our American neighbours and mimic their embrace of "tough on crime" 
laws with hard and fast rules for mandatory minimum punishments.

The election of Justin Trudeau's Liberal party served as one signal 
that Canadians may be ready to rethink the wide array of ironclad 
minimum sentences. That's a good thing in light of a recent Supreme 
Court of Canada ruling.

A majority of the high court ruled in a decision last Friday that the 
mandatory one-year prison sentence prescribed for drug trafficking 
for someone with a previous trafficking conviction amounted to cruel 
and unusual punishment under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing for the majority, said the 
minimum sentence cast too wide a net, snagging not just serious drug 
traffickers but also those involved in conduct "much less 
blameworthy." The ruling does not mean that all mandatory minimums in 
Canadian law violate the Charter. As the dissenting opinion from 
three of the court's justices noted, some past decisions found that 
mandatory minimums are not by themselves unconstitutional.

The majority advised, though, that Parliament should consider 
narrowing the reach of mandatory minimums. That - combined with a 
2015 ruling that quashed the three-year mandatory minimum for some 
gun-related crimes - means the Liberals are on the right track, 
having already tasked the justice minister with a review of recent 
changes in the criminal justice system.

Mandatory minimum sentences sound like a good idea in theory, but 
Canadians know that the application of justice can be uneven. One 
need only look at the disproportionate number of First Nations people 
in the system to know that all is not right.

Statistics Canada reported that violent crime continued to drop 
across the country in 2014 and that serious crime was at its lowest 
level since 1969. Yet the federal prison population grew by 10 per 
cent between 2005 and 2015, according to correctional investigator 
Howard Sapers' 2014-15 annual report.

Nobody wants someone found guilty of committing a serious crime such 
as murder to walk away consequence free. That's not justice.

But the problem with applying mandatory minimum sentences to a wide 
range of minor crimes is that it sets up a straightforward equation 
with no room for variables. Commit crime X and face the obligatory 
punishment of Y number of years in jail or prison. That makes for 
easy sound bites, but that calculation does not automatically add up 
to justice either. 
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