The Conditional Sentence Option
Chief Justice Michael MacDonald
Chief Justice of Nova Scotia
As a result of an amendment made to the Criminal Code
in 1996, judges are now permitted to order that a term of imprisonment
of less than two years be served in the community on conditions. This
sentencing option continues to be the subject of healthy public debate.
Appellate Courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, have helped
delineate the role and responsibility of trial judges who are called
upon to consider this form of sentence. This paper will proceed from
a short background discussion to a brief consideration of some frequently
Here, as with other forms of sentence in the criminal
sphere, the source of the law is Parliament, guidance on its application
comes from the appellate courts, and the discretion in any given case
reposes in the sentencing judge.
Conditional (Community) Sentences - A Brief
Several years ago, Canada’s Parliament identified
two concerns with our justice system as it applies to sentencing:
a. our perceived over reliance on institutional incarceration,
b. the need to look beyond the offender in ways that
also address the needs of victims and the community generally (commonly
referred to as “restorative justice”).
Parliament responded with legislation addressing both
concerns. It passed a series of Criminal Code amendments establishing
general sentencing principles and other complementary initiatives. These
can now be found in sections 718 of the Criminal Code:
718 The fundamental purpose of sentencing
is to contribute, along with crime prevention initiatives, to respect
for the law and the maintenance of a just, peaceful and safe society
by imposing just sanctions that have one or more of the following
(a) to denounce unlawful conduct;
(b) to deter the offender and other persons from committing offences;
(c) to separate offenders from society, where necessary;
(d) to assist in rehabilitating offenders;
(e) to provide reparations for harm done to victims or to the community;
(f) to promote a sense of responsibility in offenders, and acknowledgment
of the harm done to victims and to the community.
Clauses (d) and (f) above are designed to promote “restorative
justice”. Clause (c) addresses the overincarceration concern by
limiting imprisonment to situations “where [it is] necessary”.
This issue is also addressed in s. 718.2 which provides in part:
718.2 A court that imposes a sentence
shall also take into consideration the following principles:
(d) an offender should not be deprived of liberty,
if less restrictive sanctions may be appropriate in the circumstances;
(e) all available sanctions other than imprisonment that are reasonable
in the circumstances should be considered for all offenders...
The Supreme Court of Canada considered these new amendments
in a case called R. v Gladue,  1 S.C.R. 688. At paragraph
57 they identified the overincarceration problem:
Thus, it may be seen that although imprisonment is
intended to serve the traditional sentencing goals of separation,
deterrence, denunciation, and rehabilitation, there is widespread
consensus that imprisonment has not been successful in achieving some
of these goals. Overincarceration is a long-standing problem that
has been many times publicly acknowledged but never addressed in a
systematic manner by Parliament. In recent years, compared to other
countries, sentences of imprisonment in Canada have increased at an
alarming rate. The 1996 sentencing reforms embodied in Part XXIII,
and s. 718.2(e) in particular, must be understood as a reaction to
the overuse of prison as a sanction, and must accordingly be given
appropriate force as remedial provisions.
At paragraph 43, they identified the restorative justice
Clearly, s. 718 is, in part, a restatement of the
basic sentencing aims, which are listed in paras. (a) through (d).
What are new, though, are paras. (e) and (f), which along with para.
(d) focus upon the restorative goals of repairing the harms suffered
by individual victims and by the community as a whole, promoting a
sense of responsibility and an acknowledgment of the harm caused on
the part of the offender, and attempting to rehabilitate or heal the
One of the main complementary initiatives passed in 1996
is the community (conditional) sentence. In certain circumstances, it
gives judges the discretion to have an offender serve his or her sentence
in the community as opposed to “behind bars”.
This provision is designed to address both the perceived problem of
overincarceration and the need to promote restorative justice. The Supreme
Court of Canada in a case called R. v. Proulx,  1 S.C.R.
61 at paragraphs 21 and 22 elaborated on its purpose:
The conditional sentence was specifically enacted as
a new sanction designed to achieve both of Parliament's objectives.
The conditional sentence is a meaningful alternative to incarceration
for less serious and non-dangerous offenders. The offenders who meet
the criteria of s. 742.1 will serve a sentence under strict surveillance
in the community instead of going to prison. These offenders' liberty
will be constrained by conditions to be attached to the sentence,
as set out in s. 742.3 of the Code. In case of breach of conditions,
the offender will be brought back before a judge, pursuant to s. 742.6.
If an offender cannot provide a reasonable excuse for breaching the
conditions of his or her sentence, the judge may order him or her
to serve the remainder of the sentence in jail, as it was intended
by Parliament that there be a real threat of incarceration to increase
compliance with the conditions of the sentence.
The conditional sentence incorporates some elements of non-custodial
measures and some others of incarceration. Because it is served in
the community, it will generally be more effective than incarceration
at achieving the restorative objectives of rehabilitation, reparations
to the victim and community, and the promotion of a sense of responsibility
in the offender. However, it is also a punitive sanction capable of
achieving the objectives of denunciation and deterrence. It is this
punitive aspect that distinguishes the conditional sentence from probation.
The Ongoing Debate
In returning to the ongoing public debate, the courts’
role has understandably come into focus. To provide a better understanding
in this regard, we have identified and attempted to answer several prevalent
questions. They are:
1. In what circumstances
will a judge consider a conditional sentence?
Provided there is no minimum prescribed punishment, a judge must consider
a community sentence when,
a. it would be consistent with the above principles of sentencing,
b. the offence would otherwise warrant a prison term of less than two
c. the community would not be endangered.
2. Are certain types of offences excluded
from consideration i.e. sexual assaults?
No. In Proulx above, the Supreme Court stated at paragraph 79:
does not exclude any offences from the conditional sentencing regime
except those with a minimum term of imprisonment. Parliament could
have easily excluded specific offences in addition to those with a
mandatory minimum term of imprisonment but chose not to. As Rosenberg
J.A. held in Wismayer, supra, at p. 31:
Parliament clearly envisaged that a conditional
sentence would be available even in cases of crimes of violence
that are not punishable by a minimum term of imprisonment. Thus,
s. 742.2 requires the court, before imposing a conditional sentence,
to consider whether a firearms prohibition under s. 100 of the Criminal
Code is applicable. Such orders may only be imposed for indictable
offences having a maximum sentence of ten years or more "in
the commission of which violence against a person is used, threatened,
or attempted" (s. 100(1)) and for certain weapons and drug
offences (s. 100(2)).
3. Should the length
of the community sentence be the same as a prison term?
Not necessarily. Courts recognize that community sentences may
be more lenient than prison sentences and they may be lengthened accordingly
- but the term cannot exceed two years. Again we refer to the Supreme
Court of Canada in Proulx at paragraphs
40 and 41:
Although a conditional sentence is by statutory definition
a sentence of imprisonment, this Court, in R. v. Shropshire,
 4 S.C.R. 227, at para. 21, recognized that there "is a
very significant difference between being behind bars and functioning
within society while on conditional release". See also Cunningham
v. Canada,  2 S.C.R. 143, at p. 150, per McLachlin J. These
comments are equally applicable to the conditional sentence. Indeed,
offenders serving a conditional sentence in the community are only
partially deprived of their freedom. Even if their liberty is restricted
by the conditions attached to their sentence, they are not confined
to an institution and they can continue to attend to their normal
employment or educational endeavours. They are not deprived of their
private life to the same extent. Nor are they subject to a regimented
schedule or an institutional diet.
This is not to say that the conditional sentence is a lenient punishment
or that it does not provide significant denunciation and deterrence,
or that a conditional sentence can never be as harsh as incarceration.
As this Court stated in Gladue, supra, at para. 72:
... in our view a sentence focussed on restorative
justice is not necessarily a "lighter" punishment. Some
proponents of restorative justice argue that when it is combined
with probationary conditions it may in some circumstances impose
a greater burden on the offender than a custodial sentence.
A conditional sentence may be as onerous as, or perhaps
even more onerous than, a jail term, particularly in circumstances
where the offender is forced to take responsibility for his or her
actions and make reparations to both the victim and the community,
all the while living in the community under tight controls.
4. What is house arrest?
This is an informal expression generally used to describe a court-ordered
confinement to a dwelling place. In connection with conditional sentences
it means that the offender is required to remain in his or her home
for all or certain designated hours of the day for a set period of time.
This is a common requirement for at least a part of the term of the
conditional sentence. The offender, while on house arrest, is sometimes
permitted to leave the home during this time for limited purposes such
as for medical treatment or court appearances.
5. What happens if the
person breaks one of the conditions?
When an offender breaches a conditional sentence (without a reasonable
excuse) he or she is brought back before the court. The court can change
the conditions of the sentence or order the offender to serve all or
part of the remaining term of the sentence in jail.
Sentencing remains one of the most challenging tasks
for judges. With these comments, we hope to provide a better understanding
of our role particularly as it relates to the area of conditional sentences.
Readers interested in an actual case may wish to link
to the following reported decisions:
 1 S.C.R. 61
 4 S.C.R. 227
 1 S.C.R. 688
v MacDonald,  NSCA 36
Chief Justice Michael MacDonald
Chief Justice of Nova Scotia
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