Mandatory Victim Fine Surcharges and Minimum Sentences

Once again the Federal Government has shown its disdain for the independence of the Courts. By introducing the new mandatory Victim Fine Surcharge, one which the Courts no longer have the discretion to waive for those who lack the means to pay, the government purports to make offenders “accountable for their crimes”.

Perhaps in my nearly twenty years practicing criminal law, I have misunderstood the objective of the criminal justice system. To me, the arrest, trial, and potential imposition of a penalty which may include jail, did a more than adequate job of holding people accountable for their actions. I fail to see how the arbitrary imposition of a one or two hundred dollar fee can ever enhance the accountability of offenders for their crimes. It seems to me to be simply one in a long line of cynical attempts to ignore facts and play to the Conservative base.

This has been in play for some time now and has included the vast expansion of the use of minimum sentences and the reduction of Judicial discretion. The practical effect of these moves ought to concern anyone with the slightest interest in the openness of the Courts and the public’s right to know why an offender has received the sentence they have.

When an offender is sentenced in open Court, the Crown and Defence make submission and the Judge provides reasons for the sentence. This is done openly and transparently. Any member of the public can see the sentence imposed and the reason for it.

With the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences, the discretion in many instances moves to the Crown Prosecutors. No longer is the public able to see the reasoning behind the sentence which is eventually imposed. This is because the Crown can now choose either a procedural step to avoid the mandatory minimum or agree to a plea on a similar charge to the one laid but which does not carry the minimum. We have now removed the public’s ability to know and challenge the reasoning behind the imposition of a particular sentence.

Some of these provisions relating to mandatory minimum sentences have already been struck down by the Courts and we are now seeing Judges resisting the imposition of the Victim Fine Surcharges on those who are most vulnerable in our community. You do not have to spend too much time on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, or the streets of Surrey or Maple Ridge to know that many, many people who come before the Courts have never had two hundred dollars to their name. Yet the Federal Justice Minister suggests that these people could sell some of their belongings to pay the surcharge.

We in the Criminal Justice system all have a responsibility to ensure that punishment meted out to offenders is proportionate to the offence, and to the offender. This precludes the arbitrary imposition of sentences and surcharges. Equally importantly, we have a duty to ensure that Justice be both open and transparent.