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Most people in Toronto realize that the U.S. imprisons far more people than Canada does, and that high rate of imprisonment is due, in part, to mandatory minimum sentences. While these sentences are particularly prevalent in drug cases, there are many laws that strip judges of their discretion in sentencing. Unlike Canadian judges, many American judges must send defendants to prison for years solely because they meet a select number of criteria.
So why is this important to Torontonians? It is important because there is new legislation that has similarly stripped some discretion from Canadian judges with regard to drug charges. If defendants meet certain criteria, they will be sentenced to a mandatory one-year sentence should they be found guilty. What is more, judges will be forced to send individuals to jail for one year, even if that is not in their best interests or society’s.
There is currently a challenge to mandatory minimum sentences in the British Columbia Court of Appeal.
One of the reasons why mandatory punishments became so widely used is because both American liberals and conservatives thought they were a good idea. Liberals wanted to prevent judges from wrongfully inflating a defendant’s sentence because of his or her prejudice (these laws came about in the racially charged 1970s). Conservatives wanted judges to issue harsher penalties.
Since Canadian society now is not dealing with the same sorts of issues that America was dealing with in the 1970s, it is not entirely clear what prompted legislators to pass Canada’s equivalent of mandatory sentencing laws. One can only hope that the courts will find that such mandatory sentencing is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Source: The Toronto Star, “Mandatory minimums for drug crimes have no future in Canada,” Lisa Kerr, June 3, 2014