Types of sentence available in Canada

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Sentencing is one of a B.C. Provincial Court judge’s most challenging responsibilities. If a person charged with a criminal offence pleads guilty or is found guilty after a trial, they will be sentenced. In determining a fit sentence, the judge must consider all the information presented in court about the offender and the crime, including:

  • The offender’s personal circumstances (e.g. age, work or school, family situation)
  • The type of crime
  • The way the crime was committed
  • The offender’s criminal record, if they have one
  • The impact on the victim
  • Any other relevant information.

To obtain information the judge may order that a pre-sentence report be prepared. This is a written report by a probation officer who interviews the offender, people who know the offender, and victims. The report will outline sentencing options and any particular programs in or out of jail that might help to rehabilitate the offender.

The judge must also consider the sentencing law set out in Canada’s Criminal Code. For example, it says “an offender should not be deprived of liberty, if less restrictive sanctions may be appropriate in the circumstances” and “all available sanctions other than imprisonment that are reasonable in the circumstance should be considered for all offenders” (s. 718.2 (d) and (e)). In addition, the judge must follow decisions made in similar cases by the B.C. Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada.

Types of Sentences
The types of sentences judges can impose are established by the Criminal Code and briefly explained here.

Absolute Discharge – There is no fine or sentence, and no criminal record.

Conditional Discharge – The offender is placed on probation for a certain length of time, during which they must follow specified conditions (rules). These could include:

  • working community service hours
  • having no contact with certain people
  • taking specific counselling or programs.

They could also be ordered to pay restitution to a victim. After the probation period is over, if the offender has obeyed all of the conditions, the discharge becomes complete and there will be no criminal record. If the offender disobeys a condition they can be charged with breach of probation and if found guilty, sent to jail. They could also be brought back and re-sentenced for the original offence.

Suspended Sentence and Probation– The offender is placed on probation for a certain length of time, during which they must follow specified conditions (rules). There is commonly a condition that the person report to a Probation Officer who supervises their performance of other conditions, which may include:

  • alcohol or drug assessment and/or treatment
  • programs for anger management or domestic violence
  • not possessing or consuming alcohol or drugs
  • not contacting certain people or going to certain places
  • any other conditions that are appropriate to the crime and the offender’s situation.

Fine – If someone is ordered to pay a fine, they must be given sufficient time to pay it. The deadline can be extended for good reason. However, If a fine is not paid by a deadline an offender could be jailed or be unable to renew their driver’s licence.

Conditional Sentence – A jail sentence is imposed but the judge orders that it be served in the community under strict conditions. If the offender doesn’t obey the conditions the judge ordered, they can be ordered to serve the remainder of the sentence in jail.

Custodial Sentence (incarceration) – The judge orders an offender to serve a period of time in jail – in a provincial correctional centre if the sentence is shorter than two years and in a federal penitentiary if it is two years or longer.

Victim Fine Surcharge - When someone is sentenced, the Criminal Code requires the Court Registry to add a "surcharge" (a specified fee intended to be applied to help victims of crime) unless the judge orders otherwise.

Sentencing law has become increasingly complex. See Sentencing, Criminal Code Part XXIII Sentencing and Supreme Court of Canada decisions on sentencing for some of the law judges must apply.

This article provides general information only and should not be used authority in court proceedings or as a substitute for legal advice.

Reviewed and updated January 2022