British Columbia

Mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offences unconstitutional say rights advocates

The Supreme Court of Canada starts hearing arguments today on an appeal case that challenges Canada’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offences.

Nation's highest court hears oral arguments on constitutionality of widely criticized 2012 law

B.C. provincial court Judge Joseph Galati said in 2014 the federal government's one-year minimum sentence for drug traffickers unnecessarily hurts addicts on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Rights advocates made oral arguments today in the Supreme Court of Canada in a case that challenges the country's mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offences. 

The case centres on Joseph Ryan Lloyd, an addict from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, who was convicted of drug trafficking after police caught him in 2013 with less than 10 grams combined of heroin, crack cocaine and crystal methamphetamine.

The Pivot Legal Society says mandatory minimum sentencing laws prevent judges from taking into account factors like poverty and addiction when sentencing.

It says minimum sentences hurt low-level offenders the most.

"Let judges make the decisions that are best for the public and best for the circumstances of the offence," said Katrina Pacey, executive director of Pivot Legal Society.

"Its really not for Parliament to be creating these minimum standards that, in fact, end up having the most detrimental effect on the lowest-level offenders."

Pacey says Lloyd is currently in jail, serving time for a crime unrelated to the case heard today in court.

Rights advocates speak out

Pacey pointed out the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that minimum sentencing was part of the legacy of colonialism that led to over-incarceration.

"For many communities, including people who live with addiction, or for indigenous communities, a mandatory minimum sentence doesn't allow a judge to say, look, for this person, I think you need to think about drug treatment, or you need to think about some community connection with your indigenous community, as opposed to time behind bars."

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association opposes mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offences as well, arguing the bill that brought them into law was unconstitutional and unnecessary.

It said in a written statement, Tuesday:

"The BCCLA is arguing that the mandatory minimum sentence at issue in the case is unconstitutional."

"Canada is now second only to the United States in the number and scope of offences that carry mandatory minimum sentences. Mandatory minimum sentencing in Canada is at an all-time high even as crime rates have been dropping steadily and are at their lowest point since the early 1970s."

Bill C-10, formerly known as the Safe Streets and Communities Act, was brought in by the federal Conservative government in 2012 and made one-year sentences mandatory for people who commit another offence within a 10-year period.

To listen to the full audio, click the link labelled: Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences.