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Tuesday, May 25, 1999Court to clear dustup over law allowing home sentences
Asked to set guidelines: Conditional sentencing linked to notorious cases
OTTAWA - A three-year-old law that has allowed tens of thousands of convicted criminals, including rapists and child molesters, to serve their sentences at home goes on trial today in the Supreme Court of Canada.
The high court, which will hear six cases over the next three days, is being asked to set guidelines for when conditional sentences should be handed out instead of jail terms.
Since the Criminal Code was amended, courts across the country have issued conflicting rulings on when, and for what types of crime, conditional sentences are appropriate.
"The dust blown up by Bill C-41 has yet to settle," said Patrick Healy, a law professor at McGill University, in a new study on the disparities of sentences.
Conditional sentences were brought in by Allan Rock, the former justice minister, in 1996, in part to ease prison overcrowding, and were supposed to be reserved for non-violent, minor crimes.
But there have been some notorious cases where conditional sentences were imposed on child molesters, rapists, and killer drunk drivers. In Montreal, for example, a storm of controversy was created when two men were sentenced to 18 months in the community for raping an 18-year-old woman.
Five of the six cases before the Supreme Court this week involve Crown appeals from provinces who believe the courts mistakenly handed down lenient sentences. The sixth case involves an appeal from an Alberta aboriginal who is challenging his sentence of a jail term.
The cases are:
- Jeromie Proulx of Winnipeg received an 18-month conditional sentence in 1997 after pleading guilty to dangerous driving causing death when a passenger in his car was killed in an automobile accident.
- Andrew Bunn, a Winnipeg lawyer, was given a conditional sentence of two years less a day in 1997 for six counts of breach of trust arising from $86,000 he received in trust from estates of Canadian relatives of Russian beneficiaries.
- R.A.R., a Manitoba man, was given a nine-month conditional sentence in 1997 for sexually assaulting an employee.
- The B.C. Crown is contesting a nine-month conditional sentence given to R.N.S. for sexually assaulting his granddaughter from the time she was five years old until she turned 10.
- Newfoundland is appealing a 21-month community sentence served on L.F.W. in 1996 for gross indecency and assault on his cousin in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
- In the case of Alberta v. Wells, an aboriginal is contesting that he should have received a conditional sentence instead of 20 months in jail for sexual assault on a woman when she was sleeping. The case raises another issue relating to a Criminal Code provision that urges alternatives to incarceration for aboriginal offenders because there are already too many in jail.
Reform MPs have repeatedly demanded an amendment to the Criminal Code to ensure that no one convicted of crimes involving violence, death, or serious injury would be eligible for a conditional sentence.
The Liberal government has initiated a review to determine if further limits should be placed on the availability of conditional sentences. Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister, who has said she is waiting for direction from the Supreme Court, estimated last year that there had already been 18,000 conditional sentence handed down in Canada.
"While the vast majority of these appear to have been well-reasoned, appropriate dispositions, there have been some conditional-sentencing decisions that have created controversy and that seemed, on their face, to be questionable," Ms. McLellan said in a letter to the Commons justice committee.
Conditional sentences are currently restricted to offenders who are considered to pose no threat to the community and have committed crimes that would normally carry a penalty of less than two years imprisonment.
Last year, the Alberta Court of Appeal blasted judges across the country for imposing overly lenient conditional sentences that amounted to little more than house arrest.
"What is staying in the comfort of one's own home, sleeping in one's own bed, remaining with one's family, phoning, watching TV, listening to the radio or stereo, and reading whatever one wants?" the court asked.
"We cannot equate that to actual imprisonment. Many law-abiding Canadians work very hard and would dearly love to spend more time at home."
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