Impaired driving is a leading cause of violent death in Canada. There are often large discrepancies in the sentences handed down for offenders committing the same offence across the country, or even within the same province. The crimes of impaired driving causing death or impaired driving causing bodily harm have no minimum sentence in Canada. Lenient sentences handed down to some drivers, combined with credit given for jail time served pre-sentencing have left many people unhappy with the system as it stands in Canada.
As law enforcement, victim’s advocates and the public become increasingly impatient with seemingly inconsistent or lenient penalties handed to some impaired drivers, I thought it would be a good time to review the system.
In Canada, the principles behind sentencing law are confusing, but they are guided by ‘sentencing principles’, and the ‘fundamental principle’ and ‘fundamental purpose’ of law. Sentences have to be consistent with these principles. Judges are given board discretion in the sentences that they hand down.
The Criminal Code states the ‘fundamental principle’ of any sentence is that the sentence must be proportionate to the gravity of the offence, and must take into account the degree to which the offender was responsible for the act. The ‘fundamental purpose’ of sentencing under the Criminal Code states the purpose of sentencing is
‘to contribute…to respect for the law and maintenance of a just, peaceful and safe society...imposing just sanctions that have one or more of the following objectives: denunciation; deterrence of the offender and others; rehabilitation; separation of the offender from society…; reparation; and promotion of a sense of responsibility in the offender and acknowledgment of the harm done to the victim’
Judges also consider mitigating factors like previous behavior, level of impairment, prior convictions for impaired driving or violent offences, age/disability/addiction, and a guilty plea showing remorse and willingness to accept responsibility for the act.
There isn’t much direction given to the court as to the quantification of the sentences. Judges can choose whether to hand down stiff sentences, citing the goals of denunciation/deterrence. Judges can choose to hand down more lenient sentences citing the objective of rehabilitation. The variation in sentences can leave the public and victims angry and confused. Adding to confusion, in Canada judges generally sentence people with concurrent sentences rather than consecutive ones, which means time served may be the same whether an impaired driver kills one person or a carload full. This is inconsistent with the sentences that many people hear about in American TV and news.
Repeat offenders are often handed harsher sentences which keeps them off the road while incarcerated, but many of these individuals struggle with addiction issues and will drive after release regardless of whether they are impaired, and regardless of whether they are still licenced. MADD Canada advocates for maximum sentences for anyone convicted of three impaired offences in a ten-year time span.
Catching impaired drivers is an enormous challenge for law enforcement officers, who rely on calls from the public for the majority of their charges being laid. If you see someone driving impaired call 911 and report them. You may save a life.