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The local situation: Considering the frequency of an offence in sentencing

The Supreme Court released its decision in R v. Lacasse today, which deals with a case of impaired driving causing death. The decision is a sentence appeal and looks at whether or not the sentence of six and a half years jail was appropriate. One of the interesting parts of this appeal is the question of whether or not the judge should have considered the 'local situation' of impaired driving in that region when crafting his sentence. 

The Supreme Court released its decision in R v. Lacasse today, which deals with a case of impaired driving causing death. The decision is a sentence appeal and looks at whether or not the sentence of six and a half years jail was appropriate. One of the interesting parts of this appeal is the question of whether or not the judge should have considered the 'local situation' of impaired driving in that region when crafting his sentence.

This case provides a nice illustration of some sentencing principles (parity, denunciation and deterrence), while also showing that sentencing is a reflection of an individual's circumstances as well as their community.

The principle of parity in sentencing essentially means that people in like situations with like offences should get like sentences. As a result, some regions have tariff that have developed for certain offences. For example, in one town, a breach of probation might have a de facto sentence of 30 days, barring any compelling circumstances. But in the courthouse in the next town over, the tariff might be slightly different.

Appellate courts sometimes come up with guidelines for lower courts as to the appropriate range in a specific offence, which can also affect the sentence. However, the Ontario Court of Appeal has refused to define a strict sentencing range for impaired driving causing bodily harm or death, given that the circumstances of the offence and the individual can vary so widely. As a result, the range of sentences varies widely.

The fundamental principles of sentencing, which are outlined in the Criminal Code at s. 718, include denunciation of unlawful conduct, deterring others from committing offences, separating offenders from society where necessary, assisting in rehabilitation, providing reparations and promoting a sense of responsibility. The Courts have found that denunciation and deterrence are primary considerations in impaired driving cases, meaning sentences are to discourage others from engaging in the same behaviour.

In Lacasse, the judge noted that there had been a large number of drinking and driving cases in the area and he wanted this to be reflected in the sentencing decision. The Supreme Court found that this reasoning was appropriate, insofar as it emphasizes denunciation and deterrence. The frequency of an offence in a particular jurisdiction does not amount to an aggravating factor, but is relevant in terms of sending a message to the community that this behaviour will result in harsh punishment.

So, if there is a big drinking and driving problem in a specific town, can people there expect to see higher sentences? The short answer is that yes, the courts can use sentences as a way to discourage people from getting behind the wheel drunk. So long as the sentence fits within the appropriate range, judges are free to consider the frequency of an offence in their region and act accordingly.

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