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How sentences in criminal cases are determined

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I recently read about a criminal case in the newspaper involving a police officer who received a 90-day jail sentence for breaking the jaw of a motorist that he was investigating (You can read the story here). Naturally, there are mixed opinions about the sentence. Was it appropriate? Was it too lenient? Was it too harsh?

In the world of sentencing there are few absolutes (exceptions exist for offences such as murder, where there is an automatic life sentence upon conviction). In most cases, the appropriate sentence is determined by three factors – principles of sentencing, the circumstances of the offence, and the circumstances of the offender. The principles of sentencing are now codified and largely contained within the Criminal Code of Canada. Some of the objectives of sentencing include denunciation, general deterrence, specific deterrence, and rehabilitation. The weighing of these factors in the crafting of an appropriate sentence is an inexact science (actually, more of an art) that depends not only on the specific facts of the case before the Court but also on established legal precedent. Often times these objectives are in conflict with one another.

The Court must first take into account the facts of the offence and the offender. Factors surrounding the offence to be taken into account include the offender’s motivation, the harm caused to the victim and/or society, the amount of planning and deliberation, the nature of the crime and other factors. Factors surrounding the offender to be taken into account include personal circumstances (such as age, occupation, family status), demonstration of remorse, past criminal convictions, impact of conviction and sentence on the offender, and many other factors. All these facts (relating to both offence and offender) are then used by the Court to determine an appropriate balance between the sentencing objectives. This balancing exercise, of course, ultimately manifests itself in a sentence. The sentence itself must be in line with sentences imposed on similar offenders for similar offences.

So did the judge in this case get it right? As it turns out, the convicted police officer is appealing so we’ll see what the Court of Appeal has to say.

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