Mandatory minimum sentences for drugs and bail conditions, struck down

Supreme Court of Canada: While deciding on two appeals the Court has struck down two so-called tough-on-crime measures introduced by the former conservative government of Canada, ruling the changes to sentencing practices as unconstitutional. The decisions mean an end to rules for minimum sentences for specific drug crime convictions and limits on credit for pre-trial detention in certain conditions where bail is denied, giving trial judges more leeway in how they deal with offenders.

In both decisions, the Court said Parliament has the right to set laws to maintain public safety, but the rules should not be so overly broad that they capture offenders whose incarceration would benefit neither themselves nor the public. In first case, the bench ruled by a ratio of 6-3 that the requirement of a one-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for drug offenses violated the guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment in the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The case came about after defendant was convicted of drug possession for trafficking purposes and was subject to a minimum one-year sentence due to a prior conviction for a similar offense. Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders were enacted in 2012, part of changes the previous government made. The Court further said “the mandatory minimum sentence provision covers a wide range of potential conduct. As a result, it catches not only the serious drug trafficking that is its proper aim, but conduct that is much less blameworthy,”.

In the second case, the Court voted unanimously against denying enhanced credit for pre-sentence time spent in custody to those that had been denied bail primarily due to a prior conviction. One-year minimum sentence for a drug crime when the offender has a similar charge on their record constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, i.e. a violation of section 12 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Only twice before has the court found mandatory minimums to violate that particular section of the Charter. The majority also ruled that mandatory minimums in this instance cast too wide a net and catch conduct that can range from a “cold-blooded trafficker of hard drugs for profit” to someone who shares a small amount of marijuana with friends.  Ms. Beverley McLachlin, C.J. author of both rulings, writing for the majority, said that in the latter instance “most Canadians would be shocked to find that such a person could be sent to prison for one year.” The Court also unanimously agreed to strike down provisions passed in 2009 that prohibited a trial judge from giving more than one-for-one credit for pre-trial detention if a justice of the peace denied bail to the person because of a previous conviction. The Court found the law was overly broad and would capture offenders who, for instance, might have been convicted for failing to appear in court. [R. v. Lloyd, 2016 SCC 13, R. v. Safarzadeh-Markhali, 2016 SCC 14, Decided on 15-04-2016]

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