The Court of Appeal for British Columbia has struck down yet another element of the “tough-on-crime” agenda of the Conservative government in a recent decision, Whaling v. Canada (Attorney General), 2012 BCCA 435, holding that the abolition of accelerated parole could not be applied to prisoners sentenced before the coming into force of the Abolition of Early Parole Act, S.C. 2011 c. 11. (I wrote about cases in which other parts of the “tough-on-crime” programme were struck down here and here.)
Three prisoners who would have been eligible for accelerated parole under the old terms of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, S.C. 1992 c. 20, which were in force at the time of their sentencing, challenged the constitutionality of applying to them the abolition of accelerated parole. They won in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. The federal government appealed. It lost.
The challenge is not to the abolition of accelerated parole itself: there is no dispute that Parliament can set the terms of parole eligibility. The issue is rather whether Parliament can change these terms for the worse for an inmate after he has been sentenced and started serving his sentence. The respondents argued that this is a violation of their right “not to be punished … again” for an offence for which they were already punished, protected by par. 11(h) of the Charter. The heart of the dispute was whether the new rules making prisoners already sentenced eligible for parole at a later date and on more onerous conditions than the old ones impose a form of punishment on them, or are merely a matter of sentence administration, as the government contended.
The Court observed “that not every consequence of being convicted of a criminal offence is ‘punishment'” (par. 48)―being required to submit a DNA sample, for example, is not. However, “courts have consistently found delayed parole eligibility to be ‘punishment'” (par. 49) when it is imposed by a sentencing court. In this case, though, it was imposed not by a sentencing court, but by legislation (and thus on all prisoners who might have been eligible for accelerated parole rather than on one in particular in response to his specific crime).
The government argued that the purpose of the legislation made all the difference, and the purpose of the Abolition of Early Parole Act was not to punish, but “to improve sentence management” (par. 50). The Court did not really dispute this characterization of the statute’s purpose, though there was some evidence that it was, at least to some extent, intended as a punitive measure. Rather, following Supreme Court precedent, the Court held that the statute’s effects are as important as its purpose when considering its constitutionality. And the effect of the abolition of accelerated parole is undoubtedly to increase “the harshness of the sentence” the respondents will have to serve. In that, it is “no different from that of parole ineligibility imposed by a judge” (par. 57), which had been held to constitute “punishment” within the meaning of the Charter. Imposing this form of punishment on those who had already been sentenced previously, as the respondents had, was contrary to par. 11(h) of the Charter.
Nor could this violation be justified under s. 1. However worthy the general objective of the Abolition of Early Parole Act might be, what must be justified is its retroactive application in violation of constitutional rights and, the Court held, they are not important enough to do that. It was simply not necessary abolish accelerated parole retroactively.
Indeed. Whatever the reasons for abolishing accelerated parole for the future, imposing tougher punishment retroactively seems merely petty.