A Crime Victim's Guide to the Criminal Justice System

Life Sentences and Section 745.6 of the Criminal Code

In Canada, murder is either first or second degree. Persons convicted of either must be sentenced to imprisonment for life. Generally, persons convicted of first-degree murder are not eligible for parole until they have served at least 25 years of their sentence. Persons convicted of second degree murder are not eligible for parole until they have served between 10 and 25 years, as determined by the courts. It is important to note that convicted persons who were under 18 at the time of the offence have different periods of ineligibility.

When Parliament abolished capital punishment and introduced mandatory life sentences for murder, it was felt that if rehabilitation was to be successful, persons sentenced to life imprisonment needed some hope of being released during their lifetime. As a result, section 745.6 of the Criminal Code, the so-called faint-hope clause, was introduced. It makes it possible for convicted murderers to apply for a reduction in the number of years they must serve in prison before being able to apply for parole. This application can be made after they have served 15 years of their sentence. All applications are screened so that only those having a reasonable prospect of success will actually receive a hearing. Further, persons who have committed more than one murder after January 1997 are ineligible for a section 745.6 hearing — they do not have any right to apply for a hearing to reduce the time they must serve before applying for parole.

If a hearing is ordered, a judge will select a jury from the community to determine whether to reduce the time the applicant must serve before being eligible for parole. The jury will consider such things as the applicant's character, the applicant's conduct while serving the sentence, the nature of the offence, any information provided by a victim, such as a surviving family member, and any other relevant information.

The jury may consider any information provided by a victim at the time the offender was originally sentenced for the offence and any additional information provided at the time of the section 745.6 hearing. Victims can provide this information orally or in writing, or in any other manner that the judge considers appropriate.

A unanimous decision is required in order to reduce an offender's parole ineligibility period. If the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, the application must be denied. If the application is denied, the jury decides when the applicant may apply again. The applicant must wait at least two years and possibly longer if the jury feels a longer period is more appropriate.

If an offender’s application is successful, he or she must still apply for parole to the NPB. A successful section 745.6 application does not mean that parole will be granted, only that the offender may apply for parole at an earlier date set by the jury. In deciding whether to release an offender, the parole board must consider whether the release would present an undue risk to society and whether the release would assist in rehabilitating the offender. Parole provides a means to release an offender back into the community in a controlled fashion where the offender can be supervised and receive guidance and support through counselling, training and job placement.

While a life sentence does not necessarily mean life imprisonment, it does mean that the sentence continues for the rest of the person's life. If the person is released on parole, the parole period never ends during that person's life. The offender must still follow the terms and conditions of release imposed by the parole board and can be sent back to prison if those conditions are broken.