Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Parole changes struck down

OTTAWA—Passing unconstitutional laws undermines confidence in the justice system, the Supreme Court of Canada said yesterday as it struck down retroactive Conservative changes to parole eligibility.
And that could spell trouble, justice experts say, as more challenges to the Harper government’s “tough on crime” legislative agenda wend their way through the courts.

Yesterday’s unanimous 8-0 judgment was the third-successive court to find that the Abolition of Early Parole Act was in clear breach of the Charter because it imposed new punishment on people who already had been tried and sentenced.
The retroactive changes lengthened the amount of time a non-violent, first-time offender had to spend behind bars before being eligible for parole.
The court found no problem with the law going forward.
But it ruled out applying the change to people already behind bars at the time of the bill’s passage in March, 2011.
“A change that so clearly thwarts the expectations of liberty of an offender who has already been sentenced qualifies as one of the clearest of cases of a retrospective change that constitutes double jeopardy,” wrote Justice Richard Wagner, appointed to the bench by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2012.
The law was passed at a time when politicians were upset over the sentencing of white-collar criminals, who, due to the non-violent nature of their crimes, could be paroled after serving only six months or one sixth of their sentence.
It’s those kinds of sentences that help drive the populist appeal of the Conservative justice agenda.
The country’s top court has another perspective.
“Regarding the Crown’s argument that retrospective application is necessary to maintain confidence in the justice system, I would point out that enactment of Charter-infringing legislation does great damage to that confidence,” Wagner wrote in the judgment.
The ruling is just one of a number of pending constitutional challenges currently underway, with lower courts having struck down mandatory minimum sentences in gun and drug cases.

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