Liberals looking to eliminate many mandatory minimum sentences, justice minister says

The federal justice minister says the work has already begun to eliminate many of the Criminal Code's mandatory minimum sentences.

Wilson-Raybould says mandatory minimums contribute to backlogs in Canada's courts

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says her department is reviewing mandatory minimum sentences with an eye to eliminating many of them and giving judges the power to issue sentences. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press )

The federal justice minister says the work has already begun to eliminate many of the Criminal Code's mandatory minimum sentences.

In an interview with CBC News, Jody Wilson-Raybould said her department is dissecting every mandatory penalty on the books. 

"Certainly we recognize for the most serious crimes, mandatory minimum penalties are entirely appropriate, " she said.

"I'm going to be moving forward on revisiting the mandatory minimum penalties in the Criminal Code in a comprehensive way. And that's going to be coming in the very near future."

As a former prosecutor, Wilson-Raybould says judges should determine the appropriate sentence for the individual before them. 

She says there's enough evidence to show mandatory minimums have contributed to the backlogs in Canada's courts.

Exhaustive study

Ottawa defence lawyer Michael Spratt has seen it first-hand. He recalled how one client who was charged with impaired driving, which carries a minimum penalty of a one-year licence suspension, felt he had no option but to go to trial because his wife was seriously ill.

"If there was a mechanism for him to plead guilty and retain his licence for the specific purpose of driving his wife to cancer treatment, that case likely wouldn't have gone to trial," Spratt said.

Defence lawyer Michael Spratt says he's seen first-hand how mandatory minimum sentences have created backlogs in the court system. (Hillary Johnstone/CBC)

Mandatory minimum sentences are also in the sights of a Senate committee conducting an exhaustive study on court delays.

"We are going to touch on that. We're not going to ignore it. It's a concern and it is a concern in some situations," said committee chair  Bob Runciman, a Conservative senator from Ontario.

There's a sense of urgency among lawmakers, lawyers and judges to speed up the court system following last summer's Supreme Court decision in the case of Barrett Richard Jordan, whose drug charges were stayed after a 49-month wait for trial. The top court's ruling set limits for criminal trials: 18 months for proceedings at provincial court and 30 months for cases at Superior Court.

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