Bullshit in Sentencing

An ostensibly minimalist, and an unsatisfactory, decision from the Supreme Court

In R. v. Safarzadeh-Markhali, 2016 SCC 14, decided last month, the Supreme Court stuck down a provision of the Criminal Code that prevented sentencing judges from crediting more than the time the offender actually served in pre-trial detention against the sentence imposed when the offender had been denied bail was a past criminal record. The Supreme Court thus upheld the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal in this case ― though not that court’s reasoning. Just like that ruling, the Supreme Court’s will likely to be seen as part of the judicial fightback against the late Conservative government’s “tough on crime” policy ― yet the Chief Justice’s opinion for the unanimous court is, on its surface anyway, a remarkably narrow one and, if anything, good news for anyone considering pursuing a “though on crime 2.0” project in the future.

There seems to have been no real dispute that denying judges the discretion to give enhanced credit to offenders who had been refused bail due to a past conviction resulted in deprivations of liberty due to longer prison sentences. It thus engaged section 7 of the Charter, which protects the right not to be deprived of one’s liberty except “in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.” The question is, which principle of fundamental justice, if any, is at stake here.

The Ontario Court of Appeal held that the relevant principle is that of proportionality in the sentencing process. The Court itself articulated this principle, according to which the sentencing process cannot be made contingent on irrelevant factors, and elevated it to the rank of a principle of fundamental justice. Somewhat confusingly, the Chief Justice only addresses this theory in a passage that feels like an appendix, at the very end of her reasons. In her view, the Court of Appeal’s approach is inconsistent with the idea that “the constitutional standard against which punishment is measured is and remains gross disproportionality” [73] under section 7 of the Charter, as well as the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment in section 12. That’s probably true ― when I commented on the Court of Appeal’s decision, I described it an example of legal contortionism by a court boxed in by restrictive precedents. The question, though, is whether these precedents are enough.

For the Chief Justice, they are. She says that the relevant principle of fundamental justice is the one that proscribes overbreadth. Overbreadth, as the Supreme Court has defined it, is the vice of a law that applies to situations that are not related to its purpose, as well as to those that are. While the law is only overbroad as to those cases that are not related to its objectives, an overbroad law that deprives people of their liberty will be struck down as a whole, and not merely read down to fit its purposes more exactly.

The overbreadth analysis is obviously dependent on the analysis of the impugned law’s or provision’s objective. In the absence of any clear indicia of purpose in the statutory text itself, the Chief Justice turns mostly to various statements made in the House of Commons by the Minister responsible for the legislation. She acknowledges that

[s]tatements of purpose in the legislative record may be rhetorical and imprecise. Yet providing information and explanations of proposed legislation is an important ministerial responsibility, and courts rightly look to it in determining the purpose of a challenged provision. [36]

The trouble, though, is that the Minister named a quite a number of different objectives when explaining the provision at issue to Parliament, ranging from the vague and symbolic to the more concrete. There was the protection of society from violent offenders, the rehabilitation of said offenders through prison programmes which is supposedly promoted longer prison terms, there was retribution and punishment too, and preventing offenders from “benefitting” from having been kept in prison. The Chief Justice concludes, however, that

the legislative purpose of the total denial of enhanced credit for pre-sentence custody to offenders who are denied bail because of a prior conviction is to enhance public safety and security by increasing violent and chronic offenders’ access to rehabilitation programs. [47; emphasis removed]

All the other purposes mentioned by the minister are merely “peripheral.” [47]

With this purpose in mind, the Chief Justice then finds that because the denial of enhanced credit “catches people in ways that have nothing to do with enhancing public safety and security,” [52] it is overbroad. Notably, the rule applies to offenders who do not fall in the “violent” and “chronic” categories as well as to those who do. For the same reason, the denial of enhanced credit is not “minimally impairing” and therefore cannot be justified under section 1 of the Charter.

As I said at the outset, this is ― ostensibly anyway ― a minimalist decision that is in effect limited to the facts of this case, and more precisely to the legislative record that was in evidence. If the Minister’s statements had been different ― if, for instance, they had emphasized the need for retribution more than the supposed effectiveness of longer imprisonment in rehabilitating habitual or violent criminals ― the Chief Justice would have been hard pressed to find that the denial of enhanced credit for time served was overbroad. A future government bent on pursuing a “tough on crime” agenda need only be more forthright to get its way ― not less punitive. Even more disturbingly, a future Supreme Court could easily emphasize different aspects of a similar legislative record, dismiss the nice-sounding stuff about rehabilitation as “peripheral,” and uphold an identical law.

Would it, though? In commenting on the Court’s decision in Safarzadeh-Markhali over at Policy Options Perspectives, Michael Plaxton invokes Harry Frankfurt’s idea of “bullshit” ― a statement made without regard for its truth or falsity. Much political discourse ― including, one suspects, ministerial statements made in introducing legislation in the House of Commons ― are bullshit in this sense, but prof. Plaxton suggests that the Court’s approach just might force Ministers to be more careful about what they say, which would “have welcome implications for democratic discourse.” (Prof. Plaxton worries, though, that the Court may also be forcing political discourse into levels of subtlety beyond the average voter’s comprehension.) But, with all due respect to its eminent members, I cannot help but wonder if the Court itself is not guilty of spreading bullshit ― still in the Frankfurt sense of course ― when it purports to identify the true intention of Parliament in the panoply of justifications offered by the Minister. That is to say, I wonder whether the Court actually cares whether the intention on which it settles is the one that animated the political actors, or whether it is content to attribute it to them regardless.

The reason I am asking such impolite questions is that the Chief Justice’s analysis of the legislative purpose strikes me as rather strained. The Chief Justice begins by saying that “[t]he title of the [Truth in Sentencing Act, which added the impugned provision to the Criminal Code] suggests that the evil to which it is directed is opaqueness in the sentencing process” [32] ― but surely it does not. What “truth in sentencing” is concerned with is not so much opaqueness as the fact that offenders ended up spending less time in prison than they were sentenced to, due to judges giving enhanced credit for pre-trial detention. The Act, accordingly, limited this credit in various ways. The Chief Justice, it seems to me, tries as best she can to avoid engaging with Parliament’s real motivations. Ultimately, she divines legislative intent from ministerial statements that allow her to strike down the impugned provision while telling the politicians that they merely chose the wrong means to laudable ends, and not that their ends themselves were unacceptable. But I, for one, am not convinced that she believes any of this. And if so, then the Chief Justice’s ostensible minimalism is merely a smoke-screen.

Yet as in other instances, adopting a narrow approach designed to minimize potential conflict with Parliament has its costs. The Truth in Sentencing Act was itself a rather remarkable instance of bullshit. As the Ontario Court of Appeal pointed out in its decision, it could result in offenders with similar criminal histories serving different prison terms depending on things such as the strength of their sureties, and even in people foregoing applying for bail in order to avoid being refused on the basis of their criminal histories and being denied enhanced credit as a result. This is not what “truth in sentencing” means to any fair-minded person ― but of course the government that introduced that legislation didn’t care. While the way in which it did so was questionable, the Court of Appeal at least addressed these issues directly. The Supreme Court does not even try. It leaves in place the jurisprudential framework that forced the Court of Appeal into legal contortionism, and wades further into the minefield of relying on legislative history without addressing the well-known issues with this practice, which Benjamin Oliphant summarized in his own Policy Options Perspectives post. As I already said here, “the problem with leading from behind is that one has trouble seeing ahead.” The Supreme Court needs to think about this before engaging in any more minimalism, real or feigned.

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