Unlike the United States, there has not been a lot of research on mandatory minimum sentences in Canada. However, the little Canadian research that does exist is not supportive of mandatory minimum sentences. Mandatory minimum sentences have repeatedly been criticized by several government commissions and reviews.
In 1987, the Canadian Sentencing Commission stated that “the existence of mandatory minimums appear to be justified by a belief in their deterrent value which is dubious at best.” The Sentencing Commission found that mandatory sentences do not deter people from committing crimes because most people do not even know that the minimum sentences exist. The Commission concluded that potential offenders are deterred by the possibility of detection and not by mandatory sentences. However, the Commission did find clear evidence that mandatory minimums go against the principle of proportionality. The commission argued that mandatory minimums were unjust because they prevent sentencing judges from imposing sentences that fairly reflect the circumstances surrounding the commission of the offence and the circumstances of the offender.
Additionally, in 1984, the Law Reform Commission Working Paper on Homicide recommended that the mandatory life sentence for second-degree murder be repealed, and that judges should be given the discretion to impose a sentence. The Commission made this recommendation because, in its view, “murders… vary enormously one from another in various ways and in particular as to their moral culpability.” And, given this variety, the Commission stated that judges are “in the best position to take account of all the individual circumstances of each particular crime.”
Moreover, the Self-Defence Review, established in 1995 by the Solicitor General and Minister of Justice, recommended a modification to the mandatory life sentence for murder. The head of the review, Justice Ratushny, found cases where women plead guilty to manslaughter, rather than go to trial for murder, even though there was strong evidence to support a defence of self-defense. These guilty pleas were attributed to the pressures that the mandatory life sentence for murder placed on accused women. To solve the problem of women feeling pressured to plead guilty to manslaughter, Justice Ratushny stated, “all that is required is the creation of some discretion on the part of the sentencing judge to depart from the strict sentencing rules currently in place.”
Despite these criticisms, the use of mandatory minimum sentences continues to grow. We have gone from twenty-nine mandatory minimums in 2005 to roughly sixty in 2013. This raises the question of why the government is passing laws that have been shown to be ineffective and problematic for over thirty years.