The Supreme Court attacks the length of the sentences, including that of Alexandre Bissonnet.

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The Alexandre Bissonnet case will be the culmination of a busy week in the Supreme Court. Source: Radio Canada.

The nation’s highest court will hear cases that will determine the future of harsher prison sentences enacted under the Harper government.

FileAlexandre Bissonnet will be the culmination of a busy week when the Supreme Court will be called to review the sentences that will be given not only to the worst murderers in the country, but also to those who have committed smaller crimes.

In the most anticipated case this Thursday, the country’s highest court will face a specific question: after pleading guilty to six murders at the Grand Mosque of Quebec, should Alexandre Bissonnet wait 50 years before being granted access to parole, as allowed by law. law passed in 2011? Or will he be able to claim it after 25 years in prison?

But this week, the Supreme Court decided to hear four more such cases, all of which involve harsher sentences that took place under the Harper government from 2008 to 2012. These are sentences that, according to several experts, have a particularly negative impact on indigenous communities across the country.

On Tuesday, the court will consider the reasons Jesse Dallas Hills, Ocean Hillbach as well as Curtis Zvozdeskyto decide whether they should all inherit four years of the minimum sentence for illegal use of firearms.

Patrick Tylon, professor at Laval University.  Source: Radio Canada.

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Patrick Tylon, professor at Laval University. Source: Radio Canada.

The next day, nine judges will focus on the case of Cheyenne Sharma, an indigenous woman who smuggled two kilos of cocaine in her suitcases on behalf of human traffickers. Should she have had access to a suspended sentence, or should the judge have sent her to prison for the crime she committed?

Together, these five cases will allow the Supreme Court to determine whether prison sentences handed down under the Harper government are in line with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“This is not a criminal process, but a constitutional process where sentences are actually passed,” says Patrick Tylonprofessor of law at Laval University.

Lisa Kerrprofessor of law at Queen’s University, adds that the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences has largely served “political mobilization efforts” over the years.

“Other governments have introduced similar measures before, but they were actually part of the flagship proposals of the Harper regime,” she says.

Bissonnette File

The Supreme Court will consider a law passed by the Conservatives in 2011 aimed at repealing “preferential sentences for multiple murders.”
Under this new regime, individuals accused of multiple murders may be forced to wait 25 years per victim before being eligible for parole, rather than a single period of 25 years.

Dissatisfied with the options available to him in the Alexandre Bissonnet case, the trial judge sentenced a man who pleaded guilty to killing six people to a minimum sentence of 40 years. This decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal, which reduced the minimum sentence to 25 years without the possibility of parole.

The lawsuit is ongoing, saying that a minimum sentence of 50 years would be “the only one that can adequately express and reflect the primacy of the goals of exposure and deterrence.”

Alexandre Bissonnette, aged 27 at the time of the massacre in 2017, responds that he deserves to be heard by a parole board after 25 years in prison.

Federal Attorney General David Lametti.  Source: Canadian Press.

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Federal Attorney General David Lametti. Source: Canadian Press.

“The parole period of 50 years is excessive, overwhelming, unfair, manifestly inappropriate and highly disproportionate to the defendant,” mentions Alexandre Bissonnette’s defense, filed in the Supreme Court of Canada.

Professor Tylon says the file illustrates the “perverse effect” of the current law, which leaves victims’ families with a glimmer of the possibility that the perpetrator will be imprisoned for the rest of their lives, with no hope of release for the detainee.

“The mandatory minimum sentence (…) creates somewhat inflated expectations among victims. This plunges us into an unfavorable dynamic where any sentence below 150 years is (considered) a defeat for the victims,” he says.

Contested fines:

  1. Alexandre Bissonnet: The power of judges to add a 25-year sentence for every first-degree murder to eligibility for parole has been in place since 2011.
  2. Ocean Hilbach and Curtis Zwozdesky: Four-year minimum sentence for robbery with a firearm, handed down in 2008.
  3. Jesse Dallas Hills: In 2009, was sentenced to four years of the minimum sentence for reckless use of a firearm.
  4. Cheyenne Sharma: Restrictions on conditional sentencing for offenses related to import/export, trafficking or production of drugs have been in place since 2012.

Source: Justice Canada.

Systemic racism

Lisa Kerr says mandatory minimum sentences raise many questions about the treatment of Indigenous peoples and some minority groups in Canada.

Their overrepresentation in Canada’s prisons has reached an unacceptable level, she says, and the whole system needs to rethink how it does it.

“Mandatory minimum sentences do not allow judges to decide on a case-by-case basis, based on the facts they have,” Lisa Kerr said in an interview. “In several cases involving firearms and drug trafficking, several judges found that the minimum sentence they should have received was grossly disproportionate. »

Lawyers for Cheyenne Sharma, for example, say she should have received a suspended prison sentence rather than a mandatory two-year prison sentence. She was 20 years old when she committed the crime, at a time when she was in danger of losing her home and could no longer take care of her daughter.

According to his lawyers, a mandatory minimum sentence should only apply to such serious cases that even in the best cases, a minimum sentence is appropriate.

With Bill C-5, Trudeau’s government has already begun the legislative process to remove about 20 mandatory minimum sentences from the Penal Code and the Drugs and Substances Act. Under this new regime, Cheyenne Sharma could have avoided prison.

“Minimum sentences have an exaggerated impact on Indigenous people in the penitentiary system, as well as blacks and people of other races. This is statistically true,” said Canada’s Attorney General. David Lametti.

Bill C-5, he said, “is a direct attack on systemic racism in the justice system and prisons. »

However, the government says it will maintain mandatory minimum sentences for crimes such as murder, sex crimes, drunk driving and some crimes committed with firearms.

Above all, Patrick Tylon hopes that the Supreme Court will clearly establish the circumstances under which mandatory minimum sentences are acceptable, as well as the criteria that must be met to ensure their constitutionality.

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