Don’t drink and drive – especially in PEI

In Canada, 9% of convictions for impaired driving result in jail time.  In Prince Edward Island, the figure is 94%:

A year after Prince Edward Island’s three provincial criminal court judges decided in a meeting that they would crack down on impaired drivers, new statistics show virtually everyone found guilty of the offence has been sentenced to prison, spurring some to raise questions about the role of the judiciary in determining sentences.

Nationwide, only 9% of impaired driving convictions led to jail time in 2009 and 2010, Statistics Canada found in its report on cases in adult court. On the tiny Maritime island, which has historically struggled with the issue of drunk people getting behind the wheel, 94% of those convicted were sent to jail.

After seeing the problem flare up again in 2007, judges Jeff Lantz, Nancy Orr and John Douglas gathered for a meeting at the Charlottetown courthouse in December of that year with a special mandate in mind: Agree to toughen up sentences for those found guilty of drunk driving. They settled on a minimum three days in jail for first offenders and a minimum fine of $1,200, along with the standard license suspension.

“They were rising in Judge Orr’s and my district,” Judge Lantz said in an interview. “We were both concerned and thought we should try to do something.”

Judges have discretion under the criminal code to decide on an appropriate sentence, although not for convictions.

The code also requires judges strive for consistency in sentencing — something greater communication amongst judges can help achieve.

That said, it is relatively unheard of for a group to come together and strategize on a sentencing standard to be applied, said Troy Riddell, an associate professor in political science at the University of Guelph who specializes in judicial and constitutional politics.

Drinking and driving is indefensible, but I agree with defence lawyer Mitchell Worsoff, who questions the appropriateness of judges meeting in private and deciding to impose much tougher sentences than required by law:

“What those judges are doing are working outside the purview of what the legislators had in mind and they are themselves, perhaps, taking the law into their own hands,” he said. “The legislators never said there’s going to be a minimum jail sentence for drinking and driving. If the judges had jumped to that step, they’re going outside the scope of what the legislators have envisioned.”

If I were representing someone charged with impaired driving in P.E.I., I’d be working on the notice of appeal right now.

(And in case you were wondering: yes, Prince Edward Island has only three Provincial Court judges.)

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