Turning inner space into outer space

June 29, 2011

What exactly is a sentencing circle, anyway?

A recent editorial in The Daily News and a followup letter to the editor have stirred some controversy about sentencing circles. Many people seem to think a sentencing circle is little more than a way to get around facing the full consequences of the justice system. That is simply not true.

I found an excellent primer on sentencing circles published by the National Post. While it’s true that the recommendation of a sentencing circle is sometimes carried out, it’s ultimately up to a judge to decide what happens. In cases where minimum sentencing is set out by law, the judge has no choice but to impose the minimum. And it’s not always the case that you get off easy even if the judge decides to go along with sentencing circle recommendation — in one case a rapist was banished to an island in northern Saskatchewan for a year.

The case of Christopher Pauchay is a good example. He’s the man who left his two young daughters outside in frigid weather, and they wound up freezing to death. A sentencing circle recommended that Pauchay reunite with his wife and seek counselling. The judge saw things differently and sentenced Pauchay to three years in a penitentiary for criminal negligence causing death.

It’s true that judges are obligated to consider an aboriginal offender’s background, but they can also decide that a sentencing circle is inappropriate in certain cases. Also, while sentencing circles are typically associated with aboriginal people, there has been at least one case where it was used by non-aboriginals.