February 2012-The Conservative government is in the process of giving us new laws that will provide new mandatory minimum sentences for a wide variety of criminal offences. This will mean that if a person is found guilty of any of these offences, they will serve a set time in jail no matter what the circumstances of the offence were. At first glance, this may seem like a good thing to many -- punishing guilty people and making society safer. In reality, however, these types of mandatory sentences can do more harm than good.
A judge of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice recently decided that one mandatory minimum sentence that is already in place is unconstitutional. This judge decided that in the circumstances of the offender she was sentencing, the minimum sentence that she was required to impose was too harsh. In fact, this judge decided that to impose the minimum sentence would be cruel and unusual punishment.
The case involved a man alone inside his home posing for pictures he was taking of himself to put on Facebook. The man was posing in his boxers, a white tank top and sunglasses and was holding a gun. The gun was loaded. The judge found that he was trying to look "cool". Unfortunately for this man, police were outside his home about to execute a search warrant relating to the man's cousin. When the police entered the house, they caught this man red-handed in possession of the weapon. Under the law, the mandatory minimum sentence was three years in prison. Three years in prison for someone posing for a picture in the privacy of his own home. Clearly, as the judge found, this man was guilty of pretty bad judgment but does that deserve three years behind bars?
The problem with mandatory minimum sentences is that they do not consider individual circumstances. There is no wiggle room. These laws assume that everyone who is charged with certain offences must be dangerous criminals and must be punished accordingly. It doesn't matter if it is someone's very first charge and in some cases, it doesn't matter if a person is still under the age of 18.
I think it's safe to say that most people would agree that those who are truly dangerous should be punished but, as this recent case shows, assuming that everyone who is found guilty must be truly dangerous will often result in serious injustice.