According to Statistics Canada, there were 13,500 offenders serving conditional sentences in 2008-09, — a not insignificant number.
A 2005 study by University of Ottawa professors David Paciocco and Julian Roberts looked at conditional sentencing in cases of impaired driving causing death or bodily harm. Commissioned by the Canada Safety Council, the study reviewed the background and criteria for conditional sentences, their use in sentencing and their deterrent value. The council wanted to know when conditional sentences were being used how they affected safety. I was president of the council at the time.
Perceived as lenient, conditional sentences imposed in serious impaired driving cases have been criticized by the public, the media and advocacy groups concerned with drinking and driving. But the study dispelled this misconception and showed they were being used appropriately. From a safety perspective, conditional sentences can be a good option because they address risk factors such as alcohol dependency, relationships and attitudes that led to the offence in the first place.
The Paciocco-Roberts study found that in 2003-2004, more than two-thirds of offenders convicted of impaired driving crimes causing death and almost half of those convicted of impaired driving causing bodily harm received prison sentences. The database revealed only nine conditional sentences were handed out for impaired driving causing death (17 per cent out of a total 53 cases), and 84 for impaired driving causing bodily harm (25 per cent out of a total 339 cases).
The data showed that courts generally accepted that institutional confinement (jailing) was the most acceptable option in the majority of cases but that conditional sentences had an important if limited role. They were ordered when there were no aggravating factors (such as a high blood-alcohol count) or when individuals were perceived as good candidates for restorative justice. Many offenders had suffered personal tragedy as a result of their actions — they had injured or lost friends, partners or their own children, and often had the support of the victims’ families.