Long prison terms on the dock

Measures taken under the government of Stephen Harper to abolish so-called “sweet sentences” were criticized this week in Canada’s Supreme Court. The country’s highest court will assess whether a series of mandatory minimum sentences imposed by a former Conservative prime minister conflict with Canada’s Constitution, as well as the “multiple homicide” clause that allowed a judge to sentence a Quebec mosque shooter. 40 years in prison.

Alexandre Bissonnet faces 150 years in prison for killing six people in 2017.

The usual first-degree murder charge carried a life sentence without the possibility of parole for 25 years. It was the most severe sentence provided for by the Criminal Code.

But the situation changed in 2011.

The Conservative government has added a section to the Penal Code that allows a judge, in cases of mass murder, to add periods of 25 years – one for each murder – before the convicted person can ask for release. For a mosque shooter, this could lead to a prison sentence of 150 years, which is more than a human life expectancy – a life sentence, period.

Such a term was described by his lawyers, who tried to avoid him, as “a death sentence in the form of imprisonment”.

“Incompatible with human dignity,” they added, arguing that this would deprive any possibility of rehabilitation and social reintegration, two cornerstones of the prison system.

They partially succeeded: the judge decided to send Bissonnette to jail for at least 40 years. This decision satisfied neither the defense nor the Crown prosecutors, who appealed. The Court of Appeal in Quebec invalidated section 745.51 of the Criminal Code and reduced the period of inadmissibility to 25 years, recalling that sentences should not satisfy the “vindictive spirit”.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court will hear the parties and will have to decide, among other things, whether the combination constitutes “cruel or unusual punishment” prohibited by Section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She may decide to strike it out of the Criminal Code.

After Bissonnette’s sentence was commuted, some argued that this meant that there was no difference between killing one person or killing six.

But the sentence passed is “life imprisonment,” recalls M.as well as Véronique Robert, specialist in criminal law. You also have the option to apply for parole after 25 years. “Which does not mean that the convict will receive it.”

The parole board can assess the situation of the convicted person and consider many factors, including the possibility of rehabilitation, understanding of the harm done, and regret.

“Saint Anne de Plaine is full of people who have been there for 35 or 40 years,” she says. For example, two men convicted of crimes on the Jacques Cartier bridge in 1979 are still behind bars despite several attempts to free them. The parole board calculated that it denied the first request of seven out of ten criminals.

Minimum offers

The Harper era saw the addition of many minimum prison sentences for crimes involving sex, drugs, or firearms.

These sentences have not become the norm, but nevertheless their number has increased significantly since 2006. Currently, there are about 100 crimes for which such a minimum sentence has been established. Their validity is often questioned, to the point that a lawyer has created a spreadsheet to let his colleagues know if a provision has already been challenged.

This week, the Supreme Court heard four cases debating the constitutionality of such minimum sentences: three involved firearms offenses that carry a minimum of three or four years in prison, and one involved cocaine trafficking, as specified in the Criminal Code. code. now prohibits suspended sentences under certain circumstances.

Here, too, the country’s highest court will have to decide whether these sentences are “cruel and unusual,” emphasizes M.as well as Robert. The minimum sentence, she argues, “deprives the judge of the discretion to assess all the circumstances of the crime” and the position of the offender.

Because this is entrusted to the judge by the Criminal Code, which lists a number of “aggravating or mitigating” circumstances that he must evaluate in order to impose an appropriate punishment: was a crime committed against a child? Was he motivated by hatred? is an aggravating factor that cannot be ruled out in the case of Alexandre Bissonnette.

However, with minimal time limits, “judges have their hands tied,” says a criminal lawyer.

As to the oft-cited reason for the existence of these minimum sentences, namely to avoid “sweet sentences”, Ms.as well as Robert recalls that for every crime there is a scale developed by case law, which is already used by justices of the peace. And in case of an unreasonable difference, the Court of Appeal may intervene.

In addition, these minimum sentences are in conflict with Supreme Court rulings that encourage judges to take Aboriginal real life into account and consider punishment other than detention.

“These minimum sentences have a disproportionate impact on Aboriginal peoples and vulnerable individuals, including those with mental disabilities,” said the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which presented its case to the Supreme Court. For her, any sentence that does not address the specific circumstances of the offender is unconstitutional.

Demands to declare them unconstitutional are occupied by the courts. In December, the Justice Department reported that it was tracking 217 issues with the Charter. And according to him, 70% of those drug-related calls were successful.

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