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‘2-for-1’ jail credit in jeopardy
Tory legislation would end discretion of judges to award prisoners for ’dead time’ served
March 26, 2009
Tonda MacCharles, Betsy Powell, Toronto Star
The Conservative government says it will legislate an end to the practice that allows judges to calculate a “two-for-one” sentencing credit for time that prisoners spend in pre-trial custody.Weeks after British Columbia justice officials made an impassioned appeal to Ottawa for the measure, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said he would introduce legislation tomorrow to further curb judges’ sentencing discretion.
Judges now can give credit for so-called “dead time” that offenders spend in detention centres prior to trial and sentencing. It’s seen as a way to account for time served in cramped cells while a case wends its way through the courts.Credit for time served can in some cases lead to criminals walking free upon sentencing: a convict who spends two years in custody pre-trial, for example, and is sentenced to four years in prison, could avoid returning to jail if given double credit for time already served.
Those calling for change say some defendants purposely build up their “dead time’’ so they receive shorter penitentiary sentences.It is already the law in Ontario that if a prisoner delays a guilty plea to accumulate “dead time,” he will not be given such credit.
But an array of critics accused the government of political pandering.Defence lawyer Heather Pringle said before introducing the law, the justice minister should spend time in pre-trial custody.
“A few days spent locked down for 18 hours at a time and no access to rehabilitative programs, coupled with nights spent sharing his cramped cell with two other guys, a shared toilet and some vermin, might give him a more informed understanding of this issue,’’ she said. “This legislation is simply political pandering, and its impact will be to unduly punish the poor who can’t afford a release on bail.”
Nicholson defended the move, saying the Conservatives want “more truth in sentencing.”It’s unclear whether the government will remove judicial discretion altogether, or simply try to limit it. Nicholson refused to provide details until the bill is tabled.
The announcement prompted a scathing rebuke from the Criminal Lawyers Association, which called the proposal a “step backward” that would “promote harsher sentences, produce fewer guilty pleas and give Parliament’s approval to inhumane detention facilities.”The bill was endorsed “in principle” by the federal Liberals who said they are ready to expedite parliamentary approval. The BQ also supports it. But the NDP, which also backs the principle, warned there should be room for judicial discretion as a way to force governments to deal with prison conditions.
Pointing to dreadful conditions at Toronto’s Don Jail, Joe Comartin, NDP MP and public safety critic, said the bill is unlikely to “avoid a successful Charter challenge unless we retain a reasonable amount of discretion in the hands of our judges.”Conditions at the Don Jail, particularly overcrowding, have led to the jail’s censure by Amnesty International and has on occasion led judges to give three-for-one credit.
update: Bill C-25 was introduced on March 27th. As of April 20th, it has passed 2nd reading and is before the Justice and Human Rights committee.
See current status of Bill C-25.
‘2-for-1’ jail credit in jeopardy (Toronto Star)
Related Articles on prisonjustice.ca:
Ottawa Jail Conditions Continue to Come Under Fire (3 to 1 credit granted due to conditions)