Victims’ Rights Advocates Weigh In on Ottawa’s Plan to Axe Minimum Sentences

February 24, 2021 Updated: February 27, 2021

New legislation introduced by the Liberals would eliminate many minimum sentences for drug offences and some gun-related crimes, a move that has drawn a mixed response from victims’ rights advocates.

Introduced Feb. 18, Bill C-22 seeks to repeal mandatory minimum penalties (MMPs) for 14 Criminal Code offences, including 11 involving firearms. All six minimum penalties in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act would be repealed.

The reforms aim to eliminate minimum sentences that are associated with the overrepresentation of indigenous, black, and marginalized Canadians in the criminal justice system, the government says.

Aline Vlasceanu, executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, says victims she works with want minimum penalties for serious crimes, but the MMPs that would be eliminated by Bill C-22 aren’t in that category.

“These are minor, simple possession offences and not really what we deal with. We deal with victims of serious violent crime, homicide,” she said in an interview.

“We’re talking about sexual assault, things like that, that are just extremely serious. And most folks want those kinds of people off the street anyway, so it lines up with public safety regardless.”

Lozanne Wamback, co-founder of the Canadian Crime Victim Foundation, tells The Epoch Times that the justice system seems to show more sympathy toward criminals than victims.

“If the sentence is light, then what’s going to happen with rehabilitation? So they get a slap on the wrist and they’re let out into the community and then they’re going to probably do it again. So what does that say to the community as well?” asked Womback.

Womback’s son, Jonathan, sustained permanent brain damage at age 15 over 20 years ago, when he was assaulted by a juvenile with 56 previous charges, along with other young offenders. She believes race has little to do with proper jail sentencing.

“They often play that card, but I don’t think it matters. … If you’re a criminal, it doesn’t matter what the colour of your skin is.”

Some of the MMPs targeted by Bill C-22 were in accordance with Supreme Court of Canada decisions that removed them on constitutional grounds. This includes the three-year MMP for the first-time offence of unlawfully possessing a loaded or easily loaded prohibited or restricted firearm, and the five-year minimum sentence for repeat offenders. The Supreme Court also struck down the one-year minimum penalty for a repeat offender for possession of drugs for the purpose of trafficking.

As of Feb. 8, 262 Charter challenges to MMPs were being tracked by Justice Canada. Of all Charter challenges to MMPs tracked by the department in the last decade, 69 percent of challenges to MMPs for drug offences were successful, while 49 percent of those for firearms offences were successful.

Bruce Pardy, law professor at Queen’s University, says Section 718 of the Criminal Code lists many purposes of sentencing, but rehabilitation gets most of the attention.

“The progressive left is increasingly rejecting the idea that one of the legitimate purposes of sentencing is punishment,” he says.

“When someone says ‘jail doesn’t work,’ they likely mean that it does not work in terms of rehabilitation, rather than that it does not provide punishment for criminal conduct.”

Section 718.2 (e) mentions that alternatives to jail should be considered “with particular attention to the circumstances of Aboriginal offenders.”

“There are tensions in other sections of the Code relevant to sentencing that reflect an ideological conflict,” Pardy said.

“These notions provide cover for adjusting sentencing based upon the background of the accused, including their race and ethnicity, which conflicts with the old idea that the same rules and punishments apply to everyone without regard to identity.”

By getting rid of minimum sentences, Pardy adds, “the Liberals may be seeking to allow identity to become a key factor in sentencing.”

The government says the proposed legislation “would ensure courts can continue to impose tough sentences on violent and serious crimes,” but without unfairly impacting black and indigenous offenders.

“The reforms we are introducing are critical to addressing systemic racism and discrimination in the justice system while keeping Canadians safe,” Justice Minister David Lametti said in a press release on Feb. 18.

According to Department of Justice statistics, indigenous offenders accounted for 30 percent of federal inmates in 2020. In 2018–2019, blacks represented 7.2 percent of those in federal jail, but only 3 percent of the Canadian population.

Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the New York-based Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, said in an interview that higher rates of incarceration are not reflective of systemic racism, but are proportional to the crimes committed.

“Everything going on in ‘criminal justice reform’ now is driven by race,” said Mac Donald, an outspoken opponent of the claim that the U.S. criminal justice system is pervaded by racial bias.

On the day the Liberals introduced Bill C-22, Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu issued a press release noting his concerns with the legislation.

“While Ottawa’s new justice bill contains some reasonable measures, I am deeply concerned about the decision to gut tough sentencing provisions for gun crimes,” Madu said. “Removing tough, mandatory penalties for actual gun crimes undermines the very minority communities that are so often victimized by brazen gun violence.”