Nova Scotia

Top N.S. court sets sentencing guidelines for African Nova Scotians

Nova Scotia’s highest court has provided a blueprint for judges to use in sentencing African Nova Scotians convicted of serious crimes.

Guidelines contained in decision from Nova Scotia Court of Appeal in case of Rakeem Rayshon Anderson

Nova Scotia's highest court has provided a blueprint for judges to use in sentencing African Nova Scotians convicted of serious crimes. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

Nova Scotia's highest court has provided a blueprint for judges to use in sentencing African Nova Scotians convicted of serious crimes.

The guidelines are contained in a decision from the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal in the case of Rakeem Rayshon Anderson, which was released this week.

In its decision, Justice Anne Derrick, writing for a rare five-member panel wrote: "Appellate courts have a responsibility in such circumstances to equip judges sentencing offenders of African descent with the tools to craft fit sentences."

Anderson was convicted of various firearms offences relating to a vehicle stop in which police found a loaded .22 calibre revolver in his car. He received a conditional sentence to be served in the community, which is what his lawyer had requested.

Crown had asked for prison sentence

The Crown had asked for a federal prison term, saying it was necessary to reflect the seriousness of crimes involving firearms.  But as the case made its way through the appeals process, the Crown modified its position.

In the end, all parties, including the Criminal Lawyers' Association and African Nova Scotia Decade for People of African Descent Coalition, which were intervenors, asked the Court of Appeal to provide guidance on sentencing, including how cultural assessments should be used.

"African Nova Scotians are the only people in Nova Scotia whose history involves slavery, including slavery lawfully practiced in the province. Slavery perpetrated extreme violence and dislocation," the coalition said in its statement of facts.

The assessments, known more formally as Impact of Race and Cultural Assessments, provide sentencing judges with insights into particular challenges facing African Nova Scotians embroiled in the justice system.

Assessments relatively new

The assessments are relatively new innovation and one was prepared for Anderson's sentencing.

It looked at his upbringing in poor conditions with his limited education. He only achieved Grade 6.

The assessment noted that Anderson was not engaged in any criminal activity and was only carrying the firearm because he feared for his own safety. One of the authors of the assessment, Natalie Hodgson, noted that a "heightened sense of self-security" can lead people from "trauma and marginalized" communities to arm themselves.  

Hodgson and co-author Robert Wright were called to testify before Chief Provincial Court Judge Pam Williams at Anderson's sentencing.

Both said Anderson's rehabilitation would not be served by a federal prison sentence. They said neither federal nor provincial jails and prisons have programs specifically designed for offenders of African descent, whereas such programs are available in the community.

Court grants leave to appeal, then dismisses appeal

Derrick also referenced the recently introduced Bill 22, which is designed to address some issues of systemic racism. It would eliminate some mandatory minimum sentences that were mandated by the previous federal Conservative government.

In the end, the Court of Appeal granted leave to appeal Williams's original sentence, but then, in the next sentence, dismissed that appeal.

"Mr. Anderson's sentencing shows that change is possible, for the offender, and as significantly, for our system of criminal justice," Derrick wrote.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.