Something's wrong with our sentencing system, and these 2 cases prove it
Maximum sentences for sexual assault remain lower than other serious crimes
It was a coincidence of timing with very different elements, but two new cases underscore what many have long known: our sentencing system needs an overhaul, and the court system still does not take seriously crimes of violence against women.
Both stories were published on our CBC Newfoundland and Labrador landing page the same day, July 3. Indeed, they were just next to each other for a while in the lineup.
One story involves a Conception Bay man, Adam Hayden, who held up a bank in St. John's and then — after trying to flee from police — carjacked a vehicle that happened to have an off-duty cop in it.
Those crimes, and a shoplifting charge, resulted in a sentence of nine years and three months.
Another story that day involves a central Newfoundland man named Adam Budgell, who was sentenced in Welland, Ont., for crimes of sexual violence.
He was convicted of sexual assault, forcible confinement and choking. The complainant read a letter detailing how the rape hurt her.
Budgell was handed a sentence of three years and four months.
In the justice system, it's tricky to compare cases like apples and oranges, but still: a violent sexual offender was given a sentence well under half of the other crime.
I am not for a moment downplaying the impact of the bank robbery and carjacking. Yes, no one was physically hurt, but being robbed at gunpoint must have been a gruelling ordeal. Hayden compounded things with a flight from police — and then trying to steal another car.
But it's hard not to compare and contrast the two cases, and revisit a thorny issue of sentencing guidelines.
It's easy for the public to complain about sentences. Fingers will be pointed at judges, at the Crown and especially at defence lawyers.
This issue goes far beyond judges
But judges do not pick sentences on a whim. The Canadian court system operates in a set of prescribed rules, and some of the most controversial involve sentencing.
I'm reminded of the wisdom of a local feminist who told me several decades ago that a man beats his wife and goes to the lockup but poaches a moose and goes to prison. She wasn't wrong then, and it still rings true now.
The highest possible sentence for sexual assault — itself a wide range of offences — in Canada is 10 years, or 14 if the victim is a child.
After shame and embarrassment, the most common reason for not reporting a sexual assault to the police is lack of confidence in the criminal justice system.- Women's Legal and Action Fund
Statistics Canada, working with data collected in 2014, found that crime rates have been falling across the board, with one notable exception: sexual assault. Those rates have not changed.
There's something even more troublesome: how few women take their cases to the police in the first place.
Half of the people who suffer a break-in will take the matter to the police, StatsCan found.
Only five per cent of people will report a sexual assault. One in 20. Concerningly, that number is actually less than it's been in prior years.
In other words, women — the targets of almost all sexual assaults — are less willing to go through the system now than in past years.
Lack of confidence in the system
According to LEAF, the Women's Legal and Action Fund, it comes down to a lack of trust in the system.
"After shame and embarrassment, the most common reason for not reporting a sexual assault to the police is lack of confidence in the criminal justice system," LEAF said in a submission to the federal government on legal reform.
The complainant in the Adam Budgell case — a woman we cannot identify — did believe in the system, and she pushed it forward. Indeed, she thanked authorities and the media for making sure Budgell, a man with a criminal record that includes assaults on other former partners, was brought back to Ontario to face justice.
Her case is exceptional. Many, many other women would not have even filed a complaint, let alone pursued the matter tenaciously through the system.
The justice system can be an alienating, overwhelming place for a complainant, and sentencing — in effect, the outcome of an attack — can be disappointing, if not disillusioning.
The law, though, is organic, and it evolves, and ultimately the decisions on sentencing land at the feet of the federal politicians we elect and the bureaucracy they oversee.
Quote of the week
"I told him to keep the money and get what you want."
Emad Elawwad, co-owner of Big Bite Pita in Churchill Square, recounting what he had said to a homeless customer who had only a few dollars to buy food. The St. John's restaurant offers free meals to the homeless for one hour every afternoon.
A refugee from Syria, Elawwadd told my colleague Meg Roberts that he knew first-hand what it meant to be hungry.
The public reaction to Meg's story, by the way, was enormous, and Canada-wide. It was one of our most-read articles this week.
A little weekend reading
Here are some of the stories we've carried lately that you might have missed.
Slowly simmering curries, a new restaurant in an old store, and a fascination with food from two people who kept their jobs as software engineers.
"Your phone is a whiny, demanding boss."
The Trinity Loop still attracts visitors, but for kind of creepy reasons.
What's called gay conversion therapy has always been controversial. Justice Minister Andrew Parsons wants to ban it.
Meanwhile, the St. John's Pride parade is this weekend. Read Dwayne Tuck's take about people who say there should be a straight pride one.
Perhaps the most interesting use, ever, of beer caps.
Living on part-time wages is not easy. In fact, it often requires social assistance.
Municipal math. There are a lot of town managers in the St. John's area, and they make a fair dollar. Check out this story, and the video below.
And while you're stocking up on snacks for the weekend, know that a Cheezies crisis has been averted.
That's it for this weekend. Enjoy it.