Further to Crime Diary from last week (“Was the Latham decision just?” Yorkton This Week, October 18, 2013), I want to talk a little bit more about sentencing.
As I predicted, there are many in the community who believe the judge was too lenient with Trevor Latham—the former school teacher who pleaded guilty to one count of sexual assault for an incident involving a 12-year-old Yorkton girl.
As I explained last week, judges are bound by the Criminal Code to impose sentences that are “proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender,” that sentences “should be increased or reduced to account for any relevant aggravating or mitigating circumstances” and “should be similar to sentences imposed on similar offenders for similar offences committed in similar circumstances.”
There are two other pertinent subsections of the Code I did not mention, that offenders “should not be deprived of liberty, if less restrictive sanctions may be appropriate in the circumstances” and that “all available sanctions other than imprisonment that are reasonable in the circumstances should be considered for all offenders.”
The problem is, I was told, is that judges always impose the minimum possible sentence.
This is a common perception, but is simply not true. Case in point from Monday’s docket, a young woman received a six-month sentence for mischief (vandalizing several cars) and theft (stealing some very minor items from those cars).
Just a couple of weeks ago, a 22-year-old Alberta man was sentenced to 18 months for dangerous driving and possession of a stolen vehicle.
And, in September, an Alberta judge tried out the brand new Canadian law that allows for life sentences with no possibility of parole for 40 years in the case of Travis Baumgartner, the former armed car guard who killed three of his co-workers.
I understand how perception works, particularly when it comes to media. We report on a limited number of stories, usually the most sensational ones, the ones that are most memorable.
Also, it is human nature to gravitate toward the stories that support our biases. If a person believes the courts are too lenient, he will tend to remember those stories that support, or at least appear to support that belief.
I also heard the argument this week that while it is all fine and good to be lenient with property crimes and such, that sexual offenders are a different breed. The mythology surrounding sex offenders and recidivism is very strong in our society, but it is simply not borne out by the evidence.
I have written about this before as well (“Stiffer penalties look good superficially,” Yorkton This Week, September 4, 2013).
Finally, there are those who felt that if judges are bound by the Criminal Code to these rules of sentencing then Parliament needs to change the Code.
Personally, I reject this idea. Crime has been going down in Canada for four decades precisely because we have evolved as a society to recognize non-custodial interventions are more effective than prison.
As the Canadian Senate started debate yesterday on whether to suspend three senators without pay, I did a little research on the constitutionality of an employer taking such action.
It appears that the consensus of most of the case law is that, depending on what the charges are and the risks to the business, either financially or reputation-wise, it is a perfectly legitimate course of action pending the disposition of criminal charges.
Since neither Pamela Wallin nor Mike Duffy currently face criminal charges, however, I can’t imagine if they do get the boot, that it would withstand a legal challenge. Stephen Harper appears to be caught in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.