Conditional Sentencing in Canada: an Overview of Research Findings

Executive Summary

Conditional Sentence of Imprisonment

In 1996, Bill C-41 was proclaimed into force. This Bill represented the first major sentencing reform in Canada’s history. The sentencing reforms introduced by that Bill included the creation of a new sanction: the conditional sentence of imprisonment. The conditional sentence of imprisonment is a term of imprisonment that is served in the community. If certain criteria are met, the court may order the offender to serve his sentence in the community rather than in a provincial correctional institution. The offender is obliged to comply with a number of compulsory conditions, and optional conditions crafted for the specific offender may also be imposed. If any of the conditions are violated, the offender may be ordered to serve the balance of the term in custody. The purpose underlying the conditional sentence was to reduce, in a safe and principled way, the number of offenders committed to custody.

Purpose of Report

This report summarizes some of the research that has been conducted on conditional sentencing over the period 1996-2000. This research includes an analysis of usage patterns with respect to the new sanction, public attitudes towards conditional sentencing, and a survey of judges. The research summarized here was conducted before the Supreme Court judgement in Proulx, (January 2000) which provides trial judges with guidance as to the use of the conditional sentence of imprisonment.

Survey of Judges

A mail survey was conducted of judges across Canada. The final sample included 461 respondents, which represents a response rate of approximately one-third. The survey generated the following findings:

  • there was considerable variation in the use of conditional sentences across the country;
  • judges identified “reducing the use of imprisonment” as the most important objective of conditional sentencing, although almost as many respondents cited “responding to the offender’s needs”.
  • Property crimes were seen as the offence for which a conditional sentence was most appropriate;
  • A conditional sentence was seen as being as effective as custody in achieving rehabilitation but not deterrence or denunciation;
  • One-third of the respondents perceived a conditional sentence to have the same impact as a probation order;
  • Judges stated that they would impose more conditional sentences if there were more support resources;
  • Treatment and no-contact orders were the most frequently-imposed sanctions;
  • Most judges thought that incarceration is the appropriate response to a breach of conditions;
  • Most judges believed that the conditional sentence had reduced the number of admissions to custody;
  • Respondents felt that the public in general do not understand conditional sentences
  • Most judges acknowledged that before imposing a conditional sentence, they considered the possible impact on public opinion.

Usage of Conditional Sentences (1996-1999)

As part of a special data-collection exercise, conditional sentencing statistics were compiled over the first three years of the new sanction.

  • Over the first three years of the conditional sentencing regime, 42,941 conditional sentences were imposed;
  • Ontario and Quebec together accounted for 55% of all conditional sentences imposed;
  • Property offences accounted for the highest percentage of orders (39%); 31% of orders were imposed for crimes against the person, 8% for offences against the administration of justice, and 11% for violations of the Controlled Drug and Substance Act (CDSA).
  • Few cases involving a serious crime of violence resulted in the imposition of a conditional sentence;
  • One quarter of all orders were for a period of up to three months. The next most frequent category was the 3 to 6 months, accounting for 18% of orders.
  • Domestic violence offences and sexual assault offences were associated with the longest conditional sentence orders.
  • Treatment orders and community service orders were the most-frequently-imposed optional conditions.

Public Opinion and Conditional Sentencing

Two representative surveys have to date explored public views of conditional sentencing. One was conducted in Ontario in 1997, the other across Canada in 1999. The findings include the following:

  • Most Canadians are confused about the definition of a conditional sentence; when given a multiple choice question, more respondents were wrong than right;
  • Public support for conditional sentencing is higher for assault than for sexual assault. The Ontario survey found that 71% of the public favoured the imposition of a conditional sentence in a case of assault. Support for the conditional sentence dropped to 40% for a case of sexual assault.
  • Public support for conditional sentencing was significantly higher when the conditional sentence included a number of optional conditions. This was demonstrated by comparing the responses of two groups of respondents. One group were given a choice between imposing a six-month prison term or a six month conditional sentence with conditions. The second group were given the same choice, but the optional conditions were specified. The offender would have to observe a curfew, pay restitution to the victim, perform community service and report to authorities twice a week. Without the conditions specified, only 25% of respondents favoured the imposition of a conditional sentence in a case of break and enter. When the optional conditions were specified, support for imposing a conditional sentence rose to 65%.
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