The Truth in Sentencing Act doesn’t deliver on its promise.
Since 2010, the Act has restricted judges’ discretion to give defendants extra credit for pre-sentence custody. Defendants awaiting trial in medieval conditions must now wait longer. The government claims the law discourages prisoners from deliberately delaying judgment to get a “dead time” discount.
Underpinning the law is a distrust of judges and their habit of thinking independently. The government thinks judges can’t be trusted to use their sentencing discretion wisely. So they eliminated as much of it as possible.
In March, the Ontario Court of Appeal weighed in. It said the law created the potential for disparate sentences and that circumstances would nearly always justify extra credit. The top courts in Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Quebec agreed.
Now it’s the Supreme Court’s turn. Later this month, the Court will hear appeals from three cases applying the Act. It will decide whether the government’s approach to the law achieves its stated aim of discouraging deliberate delay.
Truth in sentencing is misleading advertising. It obscures the fact that the stated justification for the law – the manipulative defendant seeking a “dead time” discount – is an urban myth. Judges refuse credit to defendants who deliberately delay sentencing. It ignores the fact that government business decisions cause lengthy pre-sentence delays. And it sells a promise that implacable sentencing laws will solve social problems.
The idea that eliminating judicial discretion will reduce violent crime is appealing and simple. And wrong. Canadian judges treat each case individually. This means they give tough sentences to those who deserve them. By applying the law and refusing to be distracted by high-profile violent outliers, they preserve the integrity of a system based on neutrality and independence.
The competition for the “law and order” vote is always an unpleasant spectacle. Logically, it should be won by opinion leaders whose proposals are actually tough on crime. Unfortunately, the reality is different. The winners are demagogues who are just tough on criminals. Longer sentences for people who cannot get bail before trial will never make Canadians safer. But the government views safety as secondary to the appearance of muscular punishment.
Your government is all hat, no cowboy.