Editorial: Analyzing the effects of sentencing reform

A key change took hold in Canada’s courts last week.
After years of debate and criticism, the federal government implemented legislation ending the double credit convicts typically have received for pretrial time spent in remand centres.The idea was to enact truth in sentencing, so that the actual time spent in jail roughly matches the punishment criminals receive.

Provincial politicians, police, and victims’ groups are all lauding the change given concerns that the awarding of double credit provided an incentive for criminals to drag out their court proceedings. Knowing they’d eventually plead guilty, repeatedly adjourning cases would ensure they would get a sentence bargain by the time the matter was over, critics alleged.

Defence lawyers, meanwhile, have decried the change as yet another example of the government taking away sentencing discretion from judges.

At the same time, they point out that one of the key factors behind awarding double credit was a recognition of the difficult conditions in remand centres as well as the fact that inmates there have little access to rehabilitative programming.

Both perspectives are valid. Allowing judges to take the circumstances of each case into consideration is important, while the public has a legitimate concern about the practice of awarding double credit, particularly since it’s common to grant it in virtually all cases in many jurisdictions.

So, it’s arguable that the government has gone too far in eliminating the double-credit option without allowing for much leeway in exceptional cases. But as usual, debate over the issue involves little reference to specific facts and data.

To what extent, for example, are trial delays due to backlogs in the system rather than criminals taking advantage of generous sentencing provisions? How much of an increase in the prison population do officials expect the change to cause? If it’s significant, how will they handle it?

The new law, in fact, is one of a few pieces of the government’s marquee tough-on-crime bills that actually made it through the legislative process to royal assent. As such, it’s a key opportunity for the legal community, researchers, governments, and the media to assess the implications and check whether the law is having its intended effect.

Are we seeing earlier guilty pleas and quicker proceedings now that double credit isn’t an option? Of course, the key question everyone would like the answer to is whether such laws, and this one in particular, deter crime. It’s a difficult issue since many factors affect crime rates. Nevertheless, it’s a challenge someone will hopefully take on.

Already, we’ve heard that judges have faced some snags in interpreting federal changes that eliminated conditional sentences for a number of serious crimes.

So, given the government’s plans to once again revive its crime bills, maybe it’s time for those affected by or interested in the changes to analyze just what the laws already in place have meant for the criminal justice system. In that way, we’ll hopefully have better information the next time the same issues come up.
- Glenn Kauth

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