June 26, 2009
Sentencing in Canada
When I was compiling this week’s list of news articles, one thing stood out for me in so many of the stories. Many articles covered sexual assault convictions, with different conditions in different parts of Canada. But there was one common thread: in so many cases, the sentences handed down seem incredibly short. When I consider how sexual assault and sexual abuse can alter a person’s life—depression, PTSD, psychological and physical trauma, to name just a few—it’s hard to accept that offenders are given such minimal sentences.
The maximum sentence handed out to an adult offender in these cases was six years, handed down to a man who was convicted of fifteen counts of threats and break, enter and sexual assault with a weapon. That works out to three months per offense.
Five years is called “a heavier sentence” in the case of a man who sexually abused his daughter for thirteen years of her life. A girl survives through severe sexual abuse for her entire childhood, only to see her abuser given a prison term that is less than half the number of years she was victimized.
Our criminal justice system has major flaws. One of the biggest is that our system is focused on retribution and penalization rather than finding ways to rehabilitate offenders. The lack of true rehabilitative justice means that recidivism rates (rates of re-offense) are depressingly high. According to Public Safety Canada, 19% of first-time sex offenders will reoffend within 15 years. For those who have prior convictions, that rate climbs to 37%. And of course, those numbers only reflect those offenders who are convicted a second time.
Longer sentences are not the answer to recidivism, but our system neither imposes harsher penalties nor does it generally require offenders to enter into any sort of rehabilitation programming. Inmates can often get parole sooner if they participate in therapy and other programs, but that sort of rehabilitation is not an integral part of the correctional process.
In light of how our system is currently structured, however, it is frustrating to see that sentencing is often so light—in the case of a Newfoundland police officer who assaulted a female colleague, he was sentenced to probation and will not even have the conviction on his criminal record. This is particularly disappointing when the offender is a police officer, a person given huge trust and authority in our society.
According to Statistics Canada, the median sentences for sexual assault and for other sexual offenses are both 360 days. To compare, the median sentence for robbery is 540 days. This seems deeply flawed—to violently steal property is given more weight in sentencing than to violate the sexual integrity of another human being.
We need to both reflect the severity of sexual offenses in our sentencing process and find a new model that will better rehabilitate persons convicted of these offenses and reduce recidivism rates. We need to look at ways to prevent sexual violence from happening in the first place and ways to prevent offenders from committing further crimes.