The Conservative government is considering new mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes even though an Ontario court has just ruled that three-year minimums for certain gun crimes are not constitutional.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay said on Wednesday that Ottawa is mulling new sentencing rules for impaired driving offences that cause death or serious bodily harm. "We're looking at those provisions of the Criminal Code, looking to possibly include mandatory minimum sentences for those offences and others," he said.
He made the comments one day after the Court of Appeal for Ontario struck down a three-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing a prohibited firearm, calling the punishment grossly disproportionate to the crime. The law was a key aspect of the federal government's 2008 omnibus crime bill and could end up in the Supreme Court if Ottawa appeals this week's ruling.
Earlier this year, the appeal court heard six cases dealing with the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes. It found the three-year mandatory sentence would be unfair in some circumstances and was therefore unconstitutional.
Mr. MacKay would not say on Wednesday if Ottawa will appeal. "We believe very strongly in the constitutionality of these mandatory minimums and we'll continue to defend their constitutionality," he said. He said mandatory minimum sentences are for serious offences that have a significant impact on society, including some that involve weapons, drugs and sexual offences against children.
"This is not to dismiss in any way other important sentencing principles, including rehabilitation, but the fact remains that there are certain criminal code offences that we believe are of such a serious nature, including criminal code offences that involve weapons, that they require a firm response," he said.
The Justice Minister said mandatory minimum sentences can help "restore confidence" in the justice system by demonstrating that victims' rights are more important than those of criminals.
The minimum sentences also extend the time in which offenders cannot commit another crime in society, he said.
"One of the basic principles of mandatory minimums is to send a message, a message of denunciation, but there is an incapacitation element to that," he said. "That is to say that that individual, for that period of incarceration, will not be committing crimes in the community."
NDP justice critic Françoise Boivin said the idea that mandatory minimums can stop jailed criminals from re-offending is "a bit of a simplistic view," in part because it doesn't take into account what people will be like when they are eventually released.
Anthony Doob, a professor of criminology at the University of Toronto, said there is no evidence that mandatory minimum sentences deter people from committing crimes. "The data on those kind of policy experiments is that they do not decrease the amount of crime. It's absolutely clear," he said.
However, since many mandatory minimum sentences are shorter or involve more serious crimes than the punishments that were struck down this week, it is less likely that others will be overturned, Prof. Doob said.
Dirk Derstine, a lawyer who argued the constitutional case against the three-year minimum sentence, said the ruling puts sentencing decisions back in judges' hands. "I think it's a very positive step on a lot of levels," he said. "There are a lot of people who said that courts of appeal were not particularly interested in addressing the question of mandatory minimums, but I think that that's been proven not to be the case."
Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc said mandatory minimum sentences are appropriate in circumstances such as murder, but are not a "panacea" to crime. "We have said that a Liberal government would review criminal legislation including mandatory minimums," he said.