Why do judges give “light” sentences?

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Hundreds of sentences are imposed in B.C. courts every day. Some of them seem very lenient when you hear about them. But each one is based on a judge's full consideration of the relevant legal principles and an assessment of the appropriate range of sentence for a particular offender and offence.

Judges can’t sentence according to their feelings. The law limits their decisions in many ways.

First, the Criminal Code, a law passed by elected members of the Parliament of Canada, sets out sentencing objectives a judge must balance (denunciation, deterrence, protection of the public, rehabilitation, reparation, responsibility, and respect for the law) and principles judges must apply – for example, “an offender should not be deprived of liberty, if less restrictive sanctions may be appropriate in the circumstances”. Balancing all the required factors may lead to sentences that are less severe than if only one factor could be considered.

The Criminal Code also establishes maximum sentences for some offences. Sometimes the Crown prosecutor’s choice of procedure for an offence will limit the judge’s sentencing discretion. For example, when the prosecutor chooses to “proceed summarily” with an auto theft charge the maximum sentence possible is 18 months in jail, but it is 10 years if the prosecutor chooses to “proceed by indictment”.

Sentencing judges must follow the decisions of appeal courts. They must also try to be consistent with other decisions in similar cases. If the range of cases dealing with a particular offence sets a one year jail sentence at the top end of the range, a judge would be wrong to decide that an offender should be incarcerated for much longer. A sentence outside the range set by similar cases will be reversed by an appeal court.

Most of the100,000 criminal cases dealt with each year by the Provincial Court attract little attention. On the other hand, media reports about the relatively few cases deemed newsworthy often omit many details about the offender and the offence that were presented in court and considered by the judge. Media reports may also include facts that were not disclosed to the judge. Finally, they may not capture all aspects of the sentence, such as the credit required by the Criminal Code for time spent in jail before sentencing. Without reviewing their reasons it can be difficult for members of the public to assess judges’ decision-making.

In many cases judges provide detailed explanations of the reasons for their decisions. Check Judgments & Decisions on the Provincial Court website to read those reasons and form an informed opinion about a judge’s decision. See links to recently posted reasons on the home page. And for more information on sentencing see Sentencing and FAQ on the Court’s website.

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