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Senator says judges are in best position to decide sentences

Ottawa Citizen with Senator Kim Pate 16 August 2018

A Liberal-appointed Senator who has introduced a bill to water down the impact of mandatory minimum sentences says judges are in the best position to deliver penalties tailored to the individual criminal.

“I am pleased to see that judges are challenging the application of mandatory minimum penalties,” Sen. Kim Pate said Wednesday after learning that an Ottawa judge has become the latest member of the judiciary to strike down as unconstitutional two mandatory minimum sentences.

Justice Colin McKinnon ruled on Tuesday that sending a naïve and unsophisticated pimp to prison for three years as demanded by the Criminal Code’s mandatory sentencing provisions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

“As this decision indicates,” Pate said, “judges are often in the best position to consider and weigh all evidence in order to determine guilt and the appropriateness of penalties.”

In late May, Pate introduced a bill in the Senate to give judges the power to disregard mandatory minimums whenever necessary to impose a fair and just sentence. It’s now at second reading.

Pate, a legal expert who spent decades advocating for marginalized women as director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, launched her Senate initiative because she was tired of waiting for the Liberal government to act on its election promise of sentence reform.

Liberal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has publicly criticized mandatory minimums, but has yet to present Parliament with legislation to change them. Her department continues to study the issue.

Pate contends the issue needs urgent attention given that courts are increasingly deciding that one-size-fits-all sentences are unfair and unconstitutional.

Importantly, she said, mandatory minimum sentences contribute to the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prison since the rules make it impossible for judges to consider the trauma and marginalization they’ve suffered.

Although Indigenous people represent less than five per cent of Canada’s overall population, they now account for 26 per cent of its prison population. Indigenous women represent 39 per cent of the country’s female prisoners.