It’s almost like clockwork.
Every time I write a court story I can almost predict the outrage that’s coming over what some people see as sentences that are too light and the inevitable questions about why judges don’t hand out stiffer penalties.
The short answer is usually that they can’t.
Every time a judge hands down a sentence they have to follow the established principles of sentencing that are complex and consider a number of factors.
But while they do have some flexibility, judges have to give similar sentences for similar crimes.
That means judges can’t just throw the book at someone if that sentence would be way out of line with what other offenders have received for similar crimes, even if they want to.
If they did, that sentence would be overturned on appeal.
Anyone who sits in a courtroom for a sentencing will hear the judge list mitigating factors that will reduce a sentence, such as guilty pleas that save people from having to testify during a trial.
They also list aggravating factors, such as lengthy criminal records, that can lead to longer sentences.
Every judge has to balance those factors as they consider the facts of the case at hand.
They also have to look at prior case law and lawyers for both sides can spend a lot of time presenting their arguments to show precedent for the sentences they think are fit for the guilty party.
While some Islanders think sentences are often too lenient, there have been cases where judges agreed.
In recent years P.E.I.’s judges have started to give more jail time for sex offences after Justice Gordon Campbell ruled that sentences on the Island for those crimes were out of line with what was happening in the rest of the country.
Since then our judges have been citing his decision and giving stiffer sentences, although they have been doing it gradually.
If they don’t, anything that’s too far out of line with past sentences in P.E.I. could be overturned.
Despite accusations of being too lenient, Island judges have been handing out stronger sentences than their counterparts across the country when it comes to drunk driving.
Unlike in the rest of Canada where fines are the normal penalty, it’s almost automatic for anyone caught drinking and driving in P.E.I. to spend at least a day in jail on top of their fine.
Judges and lawyers devote a lot of time to sentencing, the decisions aren’t made willy-nilly and one of the best ways to learn about them is to sit in a courtroom and see for yourself.