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Purposes and types of criminal sentencing

Judges follow six basic principles when sentencing a convicted offender.

Laypeople have often been disappointed with judges’ sentences. Often, they think the sentence is too lenient, and doesn’t match their view of the crime’s severity.

When sentencing adults, a judge looks at the facts to set a fair sentence, considering the circumstances of the case, the seriousness of the offence, and the guilty party’s responsibility for the offence.

The main purpose of sentencing is to strengthen the offender’s and society’s respect for the law and their commitment to a safe society. To do this, the judge imposes a sentence that meets at least one of sentencing’s six objectives.

Denunciation. A judge denounces a crime if it is particularly heinous, the offender has done great harm to someone, or both. A sentence at or close to the maximum penalty the law allows sends a message that society condemns what they have done.

Deterrence. This discourages an offender – and others in society – from committing the offence. The judge imposes a sentence at or near the maximum penalty the law allows, hoping that when others learn about the severe penalty, they will not commit the same offence.

Protection of Society. People must be protected from someone who committed a serious offence. A judge sentences these offenders to incarceration in prison so they cannot injure others.

Rehabilitation. The sentence for a young, remorseful, or first-time offender, or for an offender with mental health or addiction issues. Rehabilitation allows the court to connect these offenders with community support and resources to help them deal with their issues.

Reparations. The offender makes good any loss a victim has suffered through their wrongdoing.

Responsibility. The offender takes responsibility for their actions and learns from their mistake.

The judge considers additional factors when deciding. These include:

  • Aggravating factors. These increase the sentence. A previous criminal record is an aggravating factor
  • Mitigating factors. These reduce the sentence. A first-time offender will likely receive a lesser sentence than a repeat offender

Sentencing penalties

There are many alternatives to choose between. The judge will decide which penalty or combination of penalties to impose after considering the purposes and factors described above. Some penalties include:

Absolute or conditional discharge. The judge may discharge a convicted offender, who will then have no criminal record. There are two types of discharge:

  • Absolute discharge. The offender goes free and need not meet any conditions.
  • Conditional discharge. This adds conditions that an offender must meet, such as not going to certain places or not using alcohol or drugs. The offender is fully discharged if they meet the conditions for the specified time.

Suspended sentence and probation. The judge may release an offender on probation and suspend imposing a sentence. The offender must meet all conditions of the probation order and is supervised by a probation officer. If the offender does not do this, they may be returned to court where a stiffer penalty will be imposed.

Fines. The judge orders the offender to pay the court a specific amount to penalize them. Fines may be combined with other penalties, such as probation or imprisonment. Offenders cannot renew government licences and may be imprisoned if they don’t pay the fine.

Conditional sentences. An offender can serve a sentence of less than two years in jail in the community if they meet certain conditions. This is done only if a judge is certain the offender will not endanger the public. Offenders who have been sentenced for offences punishable by a mandatory minimum penalty, certain offences punishable with a maximum term of ten years’ imprisonment, and for all offences punishable by a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment or life imprisonment are not eligible.

Restitution. A judge orders the offender to pay the victim money they lost because of the offender’s actions.

Imprisonment. An offender must serve prison time because of the seriousness of their offence.

Intermittent sentences. An offender sentenced to 90 days or less in prison can serve it intermittently, such as on weekends. The offender can still attend school or work. A probation order is also issued with an intermittent sentence to control the offender’s conduct when not in prison.

Life sentences. A judge imposes a life sentence when an offender is convicted of first or second-degree homicide. A first-degree offender is not eligible for parole for 25 years.

Indeterminate sentence for dangerous offenders. An offender who seriously harms another person may be declared a dangerous offender. These offenders’ sentences continue indefinitely. The Parole Board reviews the sentence after seven years and then again at two-year intervals.

Sentencing for young people. Young people between the ages of 12 and 17 are sentenced under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. It emphasizes helping young people learn from their actions and avoid repeating them in the future.

Sentencing serves many purposes. Judges perform a delicate assessment. They combine the purposes of sentencing with the penalties that may be imposed to reach a sentence that balances the offender’s rights with the need to uphold the rule of law and protect other members of society.