……..ONE DOWN, HOW MANY MORE TO GO?
“A law that prompted a rare rebellion among judges has been declared cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional, by the Supreme Court of Canada.”
So began a Globe and Mail article under Sean Fine’s byline on Saturday, December 15 of last year. It followed a much earlier Globe editorial from April 22, “Time to ditch this bad law”, published when the Court was about to take up the question.
In 2013, the Conservative government under Stephen Harper made a previously discretionary “victim surcharge” mandatory. Introduced in the 1980s, judges could waive the automatic penalty imposed on offenders, but the Conservative tough-on-crime agenda did not permit exceptions.
The money was to go to victim services and the Harper government held that the $100 surcharge for each minor offence and $200 for each serious breach was aimed at making offenders more accountable.
According to Sean Fine, a decision released by the Supreme Count on December 14 said, “There was no accountability in trying to squeeze money from the very poor, the homeless and the addicted.” Phrases such as “grossly disproportionate,” “outrage to decency,” “abhorrent,” were sprinkled throughout the Court’s ruling.
The Liberals in opposition criticized the 2013 legislation, and later announced their intention to make changes when they formed a government. But action stalled and judges across the country began ignoring the law, or ordering surcharges as low as 30 cents, or giving offenders up to 99 years to pay.
A group of inmates challenged the law and the case wound its way eventually to the Supreme Court. This is only one of a series of setbacks against the Conservative agenda. As Sean Fine wrote on December 15, “Taken together, the Court’s crime rulings constitute clear boundaries for future governments tempted to push punishment at the expense of other sentencing goals.”
This common sense perspective impacts legislators and the courts, but scrutinizing our prison operations with the same set of eyes is long overdue.