Public Perception of Crime and Justice in Canada: A Review of Opinion Polls

4. The Criminal Justice System (continued)

4. The Criminal Justice System (continued)

4.2 Sentencing

4.2.1 Courts and sentencing

A National Angus Reid Poll in July of 1999 explored the public's opinion on sentences in Canada. The poll indicates that 69% of respondents believe that sentences handed down by the courts are not severe enough.

A 1997 Angus Reid poll on the purposes of sentencing yields similar results as the aforementioned question on the aims of incarceration. Almost equal numbers of respondents listed protecting the public (27%), imposing a punishment that reflects the seriousness of the crime (26%), and discouraging the offender from further crimes (24%). A smaller percentage of respondents listed rehabilitation (16%) as a main purpose of sentencing. Six percent volunteered that the four goals of sentencing - public protection, proportionality, deterrence, and rehabilitation - were of equal importance.

A 1999 Angus Reid Poll also looked at public opinion of sentencing in Canada. With respect to the newly established conditional sentences, the majority of Canadians polled were unable to correctly identify the definition of a conditional sentence from a three-option multiple choice question. Forty-three percent of those polled correctly identified the definition of a conditional sentence as one that allows an offender "who would otherwise go to prison to serve the sentence in the community". A significant number (38%) chose the definition of parole which "allows an inmate in prison to be released into the community to serve part of the sentence". A smaller proportion (13%) chose the definition of bail which "allows people charged with an offence to await trial in the community".

The same poll also looked more closely at Canadian's support for the use of conditional sentences in specific cases (Table 16). After providing a description of a conditional sentence order, six scenarios were presented and respondents were asked to choose between a prison sentence and a conditional sentence for the offence. The public's responses showed variation in the crimes for which they would favour imposing a conditional sentence. An overwhelming majority (97%) of those polled would reject a conditional sentence in a case of sexual assault. For impaired driving and employee fraud, 74% and 70% respectively would reject a conditional sentence in favour of a prison sentence. Respondents were more open to a conditional sentence in the case of a disagreement in a bar that leads to a conviction of assault causing bodily harm (76%). The two scenarios that involve a relationship of trust, a husband assaulting his wife and a lawyer stealing money from a client, elicited differing responses. Sixty-two percent of respondents favoured a conditional sentence for the spousal assault, while 58% chose prison for the lawyer theft case.

Table 16: Support for imprisonment or conditional sentence for particular offences
Offence Conditional sentence Prison
Sexual assault 3% 97%
Impaired driving 26 74
Employee fraud 30 70
Assault causing bodily harm (Bar fight) 76 24
Husband assaults wife 62 38
Lawyer steals from client 42 58

Source: Angus Reid, 1999.

The poll also sought to examine the impact of differing amounts of information with respect to conditional sentences. The sample was split into three groups, and each group was presented with the same crime description. Different levels of information were provided about the punishment. For each scenario, a constant option of six months in prison was presented. The other option was a conditional sentence, the description of which varied across situation. When respondents were asked to choose between a six-month prison sentence and a six-month conditional sentence, with no discussion of the specific conditions to be imposed, 72% of respondents chose the prison term over the conditional sentence. When the conditions of the sentence were made explicit, 64% of respondents chose the conditional sentence over the prison term (35%). In the final scenario, in which the conditional sentence was extended to one year, an even greater majority (72%) of respondents chose the conditional sentence over the prison term. Thus, the researchers conclude that with respect to public acceptance of conditional sentences, the nature of the conditions is more important than the duration of the sentence.

4.3 Corrections

4.3.1 Prisons and alternate sentencing

A 1998 Environics poll examined Canadians' views about prisons and alternative sentencing. When the question indicated that the country's prisons are full, and asked if more prisons should be built or if alternate sentences such as probation orders or community service orders should be used, 54% of respondents favoured the latter. Still, a significant minority (35%) believe that more prisons should be built so current incarceration rates can continue. When those in favour of building more prisons are told that those who work within the criminal justice system support alternate sentences for low-risk, non-violent offenders, 75% of those previously opposed to alternate sentences would favour such developments. Sixteen percent remained committed to the use of incarceration.

4.3.2 Parole

As noted earlier, Canadians do not have a lot of confidence in the parole system, and a substantial majority of those polled (65%) would like to see it made more strict. However, support for a stricter parole system is down ten points from the 1993 result of

75%. As well, support for an expansion of the current system is up four points from 6% in 1993 to 10% in 1998.

Parole, or conditional release, allows an inmate to apply to serve the remainder of the sentence in the community under supervision. Generally, one-third of the sentence must have been served before an inmate becomes eligible to apply for parole.

The majority of parolees successfully serve the remainder of their sentence in the community without committing additional offences or violating parole conditions. According to CCJS data, in 1997-98, 78% of provincial inmates on full parole were successful. Sixty-seven percent of federal inmates on full parole were successful. Of those who were returned to prison, 22% were returned for breach of a parole condition, such as failing to refrain from alcohol consumption; 10% were returned for a new, non-violent offence; and 1% were returned for a new, violent offence.

4.4 Section summary

The majority of Canadians appear to be in favour of using alternative penalties to incarceration for non-violent crimes. Crimes that have been deemed appropriate for such a sanction include car theft, personal marijuana possession, and prostitution. Canadians also favour alternatives that emphasize community service and victim compensation. One reason for choosing these particular offences and alternatives stems from a concern for public safety, an important factor in sentencing.

Public acceptance of the use of a conditional sentence depends on the nature of the conditions imposed, more so than the duration of the sentence.

The public would also like to see parole made more strict, regardless of the fact that the majority of parolees successfully complete the remainder of their sentence outside of an institution, without violating parole conditions.