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Canada’s justice system took a leap last week

In the first sentence of its kind, Justin Bourque, the Moncton shooter, was given 75 years in prison before being eligible for parole. This sentence is notable for its length — typically, a life sentence in Canada is 25 years before parole eligibility. However, under a new law passed by the federal government in 2011, individuals who are convicted of committing multiple murders serve their parole ineligibility period consecutively. Furthermore, judges can now impose 25-year periods of ineligibility, in a consecutive fashion. Bourque is one of the first to be sentenced under these provisions.

In the aftermath of this sentence, there has been a great deal of commentary surrounding the wisdom behind Bourque’s punishment. Some have stated that Bourque deserved the death penalty. Others have said that the sentence is too much, moving the balance of the justice system towards the American style of punishment over rehabilitation. Both conceptions are, of course, erroneous. Bourque’s sentence is a balanced step in the right direction for the justice system, though the work in this regard is not finished.

The 2011 sentencing initiative underlies a broader goal of the federal government to restore public confidence in the justice system. This goal also supports a subsidiary principle of standing up for the victims of heinous criminal offences. Together, these principles are ones that should form the backbone of our justice system.

However, the public perception of action on these principles has not always been positive. Indeed, a report released by the Department of Justice earlier this year, which summarizes a decade of opinion polls and research, indicates three things relevant to the law in question: first, there is a belief that judges hand out lenient sentences. Second, there is a conviction that the justice system ignores victims. Finally, there is a lack of faith in the prison system in rehabilitating offenders.

On the first two points of this report, Parliament (ostensibly relying on a mandate from the Canadian people) intended to restore faith in the justice system. Anecdotal evidence supports data in the report that demonstrates the low level of confidence that Canadians have in the justice system. This is a nation that saw Karla Homolka walk away almost scot-free from her despicable assistance to Paul Bernardo. This is a nation that routinely sees drunk drivers who kill people walk away with only a few years in prison. We should not disregard the effect that these high-profile cases have on the Canadian psyche. In light of this, the government’s view to stand up for victims and reinforce faith in the justice system is something that all people should applaud, because it does not fundamentally upset the symbiosis at the centre of the criminal justice system.

Some have said this law is, on the contrary, imbalanced — it preys on the base fears of the public and it isn’t supported by data or facts. It simply transports American justice into the Canadian system.

These allegations themselves seem to be driven more by emotion than cold, hard facts. The criminal law is at its core a balancing act. It is a balance between the rights of the accused, the integrity of the justice system itself, and the right of the public to be safe. In sentencing, there is also a balance between other values such as rehabilitation, prevention, deterrence and retribution.

An imbalance in the system, where Canadians have a great deal of skepticism about the justice system, should be corrected. If there is no faith in the system, by connection, members of the public will not feel safe in public. This means more than mob justice — this is an abiding faith that sentences will be doled out that reflect the nature of the crime. In other words, the principle of public safety and confidence in the system need to be bolstered, and this law does that. This is not to say that the law has made our system perfect. There are still problems in rehabilitation, and there is a need to explore creative ways of sentencing to move away from a great reliance on the prison system. But, this is a start.

Further, the law still leaves a great deal of discretion in judges to impose consecutive sentences when the multiple murders of an accused warrant it. This law is supposed to pertain to those heinous crimes that offend the public sentiment in a flagrant way: the Paul Bernardos and the Justin Bourques of the world. This does not apply to small-time drug users and dealers, or anything of the sort. Our charter rights are still intact, and we are still Canadians. The balance that is central to the core of our system remains.

The only difference now is that the criminal law has taken a small step forward towards a greater aura of legitimacy. Our system of criminal justice now better reflects the concerns of the public in dealing with the offenders who so offensively disregard the values that bind our country together.

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