More on “house arrests”: stats and stories

Why does the tough-on-crime legislation stop judges from sentencing house arrests?


When Justice Minister Rob Nicholson unveiled the government’s crime legislation earlier this week, I asked his department for information to support one aspect of the complex bill—the move to stop judges from handing down “house arrest” sentences for a raft of crimes.

The background documents released with the legislation highlighted the need to prevent judges from issuing these conditional sentences—which allow convicted criminals to serve time in the community with restrictions, rather than behind bars—for serious offences such as manslaughter, arson and fraud over $5,000.

I had hoped Justice Canada or Nicholson’s political staff would give me some sort of analysis of sentencing patterns to show why he believes courts are coddling dangerous criminals with this particular form of light punishment. Instead, the department merely passed along data from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, showing how often judges hand down house arrest sentences for certain crimes.

Raw numbers don’t usually qualify as an argument for an important government policy change. But in this case, I take it, the justice minister is suggesting the stark stats alone tell the story. So let’s have a look at a few of them.

For all the crimes listed in data provided, conditional sentences were handed down in a small minority of cases. Out of 26 manslaughter cases resulting in convictions in 2009-10, for instance, just one resulted in a conditional sentence. Out of 4,549 frauds over $5,000, judges decided on 695 conditional sentences, or in 15 per cent of convictions. For arson, it was 16 per cent, or 54 conditional sentences out of 330 convictions.

To me, these figures confirm that judges much more typically send the criminal to prison, which makes sense for such serious offences. I’m inclined to assume judges don’t hand down conditional sentences, in the exceptional circumstances when they do, for no good reason. Still, I can understand the opposite reaction, presumably Nicholson’s: Why should anybody convicted of these crimes ever avoid jail time?

To begin to answer that question, data must give way to messy details. In an earlier post, I touched on that single manslaughter case that resulted in a conditional sentence: two men in Winnipeg, both drunk, argue outside a bar, one shoves the other, he falls, hits his head on the pavement, and later dies. The Crown prosecutor and the defence lawyer agree the guy who did the shoving shouldn’t be locked up, and the judge concurs. The outcome: an exceedingly rare house-arrest sentence for manslaughter.

What about arson? Well, there was a case from a few months back from little Oromocto, N.B., where a 19-year-old man was hanging around drunk by the smoke shack behind the local legion, and stupidly started setting little fires and stamping them out, before one blaze got out of control, burning down the Royal Canadian Legion building.

Lock up the reckless fool? That wasn’t the reaction of the Oromocto legion president. “Who wants to see a young man go to jail?” Pat Parker reportedly said. “Jail does not serve any good purpose for a young person.” The judge agreed in this instance, handing down a conditional sentence came with a mandatory 240 hours of community service at the legion. The arsonist’s mother said he would gladly work longer.

Fraud worth over $5,000 is an interesting offence to include on the list of crimes for which the government seeks to outlaw conditional sentences, in that it isn’t violent. Perhaps the notion of cold, calculating, clever scamming can seem even more clearly worthy of prison. Most of the time, I guess.

But what about the woman in Drayton Valley, Alta., who got off with a conditional sentence after using somebody else’s credit card and messing around dishonestly with cheques at an auto body shop? She reportedly ripped off three people to the tune of $8,427. The judge was strongly inclined to put her in jail, but he relented when the Crown and defence jointly urged a conditional sentence. She was a mother of three, after all, and was paying back the people she had defrauded.

These are just examples I found searching the Internet for local court stories. I don’t doubt that the use of conditional sentences is in many cases open to fair-minded disagreement. I know appeal court judges and legal experts have grappled with questions about when house arrest makes sense and when only incarceration fits the crime. However, none of that debate is reflected upon in material Nicholson has released surrounding his sprawling legislation, and the undigested statistics offered by his department fail to advance the discussion at all.

The aim of the government’s reform package is, if the bill’s title is to be believed, “safe streets and communities.” If judges lost the discretion to consider, on sentencing, the messy details surrounding an drunken argument outside a bar, or a young mother’s dishonesty with other people’s money, or a young man’s stupid playing with fire, I don’t see how that will make anyone any safer. The case for this dubious reform hasn’t nearly been made.


More on “house arrests”: stats and stories

  1. “…The case for this dubious reform hasn’t nearly been made…”

    And it won’t be either, because that’s not what’s driving this.

    It’s populism pure and simple. No matter how stupid the opinion, if the bulk of their base is keen on it, it’s going to happen.

    If that doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, I don’t know what will.

    • Thank you Mr. King for pointing out that policy changes should be supported by evidence not just statements that “we want it”. I think the poster below is right … we are in for a long 4 years …

  2. It’s going to be a long 4 years if you keep expecting the Conservatives to support their decisions with facts and analysis, Mr. Geddes. I hope you have an outlet to reduce your stress level; perhaps a gym membership? Yoga? Scotch tasting club?

  3. “This isn’t a court of justice, son.  This is a court of law” – Billy Bragg

  4. ” A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” – RW Emerson.

  5. A Tory God is a vengeful God.

    Their obtuse rigidity on conditional sentences and house arrest will come back to bite them when some “human interest” case catches the attention of the media involving someone who, in spite of community sentiment, is jailed because the court no longer had the option of leniency.

    • Robert Latimer was such a case. Convicted of 2nd degree murder, the jury recommended he be eligible for parole after a year. The judge wanted to grant Latimer a constitutional exemption. The Sask Court of Appeal overturned the judge’s ruling and imposed the mandatory minimum sentance. We forget all too soon.

  6. You know what’s awesome though… the fact that they’ve been at this for 4 years now and the Media is just now calling them out on it. Why didn’t they get called out 4 years ago?

    Why for the past 4 years have Conservative MP’s and Pundits been allowed to go on shows like Power&Politics, Question Period and PowerPlay and tell outright lies and never be called out on it?

    And Evan Solomon, by chance you are reading this, you’re really pathetic at your job, have some self-respect man!

    • I don’t know about the dinner-hour chat shows, but if you’d been reading John Geddes, who’s the Ottawa bureau chief of one of the country’s largest magazines, for the past five years none of this would be new to you.

      • Indeed, Paul you are correct. I think the bigger problem is that when members of the  media like John Geddes report on it, Canadians don’t engage. Journalists can do nothing if the public does not heed their warnings … 

  7. I agree with Phil above.  For a lot of the b.s. in the HUGE omnibus crime bill it’s not so much that the Tories WON’T make a case based on evidence, it’s that they CAN’T make a case based on evidence. 

    For a lot of this stuff, the problem isn’t that the Tories are refusing to explain why their policies make sense, the problem is that the policies DON’T MAKE SENSE.  Of course, in many ways they don’t NEED to make sense.  If you want safer streets and communities you need to base your criminal law and procedures on EVIDENCE and the REAL WORLD.  However, in reality, this bill has almost NOTHING to do with safer streets and less crime, it has to do with POLITICS.

    • Ahh, Lord Kitcheners Own, my favorite Macleans poster by far, you are so right … it is all and only about politics … but to me this one of the more distasteful aspects of the Conservative approach – making policy for politics and the poor people who will get crunched in the process be damned … 

      Hey Mr. Nicholson, this isn’t just a theory you know, there are people involved, people you are supposed to be serving … that means us, not the party PR machine … 

    • I agree in that it doesn’t make sense in terms of creating and maintaining a just and fair society where everyone is entitled to due process and equitable sentencing before the courts, and a chance to succeed in all areas in life (not necessarily a good chance, but at least a chance.

      Of course, government progressively acting in the interest of a just and fair society is a left wing agenda.  As a country we voted for the CPC and gave them a mandate to be exactly what they are and what they openly campaigned as:  an incoherent jumble of populist and conservative agendas.

  8. The conservatives are building prisons … crime rates are going down … and no one can understand why. Then you see laws that will imprison someone for passing a joint without asking for ID, and laws like this one. When crime rates drop and you want to appear ‘tough on crime’ you simply manufacture criminals, and Mr Harper is VERY good at turning average citizens into criminals.

    • Similarly, when you want to present yourself as the only alternative to proper economic management, well then, you must manufacture a recession so that you can then save us from it … 

  9. thanks. useful, helpful article

  10. John, one must come to grips with the fact that it is now a harperite era and “Un-legislation”, is king. 

  11. What I find interesting is that Geddes is very good at cherry picking his examples. How about the other 53 arson cases, 694 fraud cases and 25 manslaughter cases. On these he is silent and doesn’t even mention if he found or not found any “house arrest questionable? Hmm perhaps his bias is showing.

  12. Just another step on the road to the barbaric hooliganism we see dominating politics in the USA. 

  13. You’re using common sense to question this legislation — there was none of that used in the drafting, and it won’t affect the ideology driven implementation.

    We screwed up when we gave Steve his majority and we’ll be paying for that in many more ways than this for the next 4 years.

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