National Post

Thursday, April 20, 2000

Proposed list of sentences condemned as attack on judges
Tom Blackwell National Post

Ontario's attorney-general said yesterday he'd like to publish annual lists of sentences and the judges who mete them out to encourage a public debate on criminal punishment.

Legal experts condemned the proposal as a politically motivated attack on the independence of the judiciary.

Jim Flaherty, the attorney-general, was responding to a private member's bill introduced by Tory backbencher Marilyn Mushinski that called for an annual registry of sentences for serious offences.

He said releasing such a list might not require passing a new law, and his staff is looking into ways it could be done under current legislation. "I think it addresses a need which people have to get some kind of accurate reading on what sentences are done," he told reporters.

"The courts of the province of Ontario are public courts. They are not the domain of lawyers and judges... If that information can be made more readily available, then the public has the right to know."

Under Ms. Mushinski's bill, the list would include the sentence, the judge's name, the offence, the maximum penalty allowed and any reason the judge gave for handing out something less than the maximum.

Cases settled by plea would not be included.

Material released by Ms. Mushinski said the registry could be used for future "performance reviews" of judges.

The list of judges would let people know "which judges believe that stiff sentencing is an important way to protect law-abiding citizens and motivate lenient judges to give out tougher sentences," the Toronto MPP told the Legislature.

Alan Gold, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association, said a list would undermine the independence that is crucial to judges acting impartially and almost certainly be ruled unconstitutional."

"It's really dumb and dumber thinking: that a long sentence is automatically good and proper and a shorter sentence is automatically bad," he said. "This sort of an attack on judges who give out sentences that aren't long enough to satisfy politicians ...1 hope it dies a swift death."

Publishing a list without details of a case would be misleading, said Allan Young, a law professor at Toronto's York University.

Studies done at the universities of Toronto and Ottawa suggest people tend to think sentences are too soft when all they know is the charge and the punishment. But when they learn the circumstances of the actual crime, they tend to agree with the judge, Mr. Young said.

He said it would be useful to publish statistics on the average sentences for different offences. That would give judges a range of punishment they could mete out, and avoid the wide discrepancies that can occur now, Mr. Young said.

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