Life imprisonment is the harshest punishment Canadian courts can impose on criminal offenders. Yet, many critics of our criminal justice system argue that its apparent severity is offset by parole eligibility standards that render the concept of actual “life in prison” moot. Due to a unanimous 2022 Canadian Supreme Court decision, even the most heinous mass murderers are now eligible for parole—and supervised release back into the community—after serving 25 years in prison.
Due to the number of high-profile murderers and others serving life prison sentences who have been released on parole, many Canadians are confused by what exactly life imprisonment means according to our criminal justice system. Consider that of the country’s 5,560 criminal offenders serving life sentences as of 2020, 37.8% (2,102) have been released into the community on parole.
To help Canadians better understand what a life prison sentence actually means in Canada, the Greater Toronto Area criminal defence lawyers of Mass Tsang have put together this primer on life sentences and imprisonment in Canada. Read on to learn more.
Life Imprisonment According to Canada’s Criminal Code
The terms of life imprisonment are addressed by Section 745 of Canada’s Criminal Code, while Code provisions detailing distinct criminal acts delineate which crimes can be punished with life imprisonment. First- and second-degree murder and high treason carry mandatory life imprisonment terms, while numerous other criminal offences include life imprisonment at a judge’s discretion. These include:
Conspiracy to commit murder
Aggravated sexual assault
Impaired driving causing death
Causing death by street racing
Causing death by criminal negligence
Endangering the safety of an aircraft or airport
Endangering the safety of a ship or fixed platform
Due to Parole, Life Imprisonment Rarely Means Life
As previously suggested, a life prison sentence under Canadian law does not require convicted offenders to serve their full terms in prison because of legal parole eligibility provisions within the law. Know that instead of representing a reduction in an offender’s sentence, parole is considered a change in how the sentence is served (replacing incarceration with supervised release in the community). Thus, anyone serving a life sentence technically remains under that sentence for life and will be monitored by the Correctional Services of Canada for its duration. Those who break the conditions of their parole, or commit other criminal offences, face reincarceration or, in the case of less serious infractions, the imposition of stricter parole conditions.
Parole eligibility time frames for life imprisonment terms vary widely based on multiple factors addressed in Section 745 and other provisions in the Code. The type of criminal offence plays the most significant role in eligibility, and judges and juries have the discretion to dictate eligibility for some crimes.
No matter the offence, all offenders serving life sentences are eligible for parole consideration after serving 25 years. Those convicted of first-degree murder or high treason are not eligible for parole consideration until they have served all 25 years. This maximum parole ineligibility period also applies to certain other offenders convicted with aggravating circumstances, such as a second-degree murder conviction handed down to an offender with a previous murder conviction.
Second-degree murder convictions that result in a life imprisonment sentence carry a mandatory 10 years of incarceration before parole eligibility. Those serving life sentences for most other offences are eligible for parole consideration after serving seven years.
Parole Eligibility Does Not Guarantee Eventual Freedom
While most offenders who receive a life sentence are eventually paroled, the Parole Board of Canada can and will deny parole to those offenders they deem a continued risk to public safety. In making their parole decisions, the Parole Board assesses criminal history, offender remorse, correctional institution behaviour, and rehabilitative program participation to determine an offender’s level of risk. As might be expected, some offenders fail to make a good enough impression on the Board to warrant parole.
High Court Strikes Down “Life Without Parole”
In 2011, Canada enacted a Criminal Code amendment that allowed courts to hand down consecutive life sentences to those convicted of multiple murders. This was designed to create a sentence of “life without parole” by lengthening the parole ineligibility period—two first-degree murder convictions would add up to 50 years of parole ineligibility.
While several offenders received consecutive life sentences (and expanded parole ineligibility) under the amendment, Canada’s Supreme Court last year ruled that the practice was unconstitutional because it constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” In R. v. Bissonnette (2022 SCC 23), the high court overturned a parole ineligibility term of 40 years (the Crown had requested 150) handed down by a lower court to Alexandre Bissonnette, who was convicted of killing six people in a 2017 shooting at a Quebec City mosque.
The high court’s decision essentially nullifies Section 745.51 (1) of the Criminal Code, which allowed judges to impose extended parole ineligibility periods on those convicted of more than one murder. Other multiple murderers who have been sentenced under the basis of this Section are expected to receive sentence reductions accordingly.
Dangerous Offender Designation May Bring Actual Life Imprisonment
Criminal defendants facing significant prison sentences should perhaps be more concerned about receiving a “dangerous offender” designation than a life sentence. This designation is often applied to repeat offenders convicted of violent offences other than murder and allows the courts to hand down “indeterminate” prison sentences that can keep offenders incarcerated for life. While dangerous offenders are eligible for parole hearings after seven years and every two years thereafter, the Parole Board is not generous with granting parole to such designees. While almost 95% of all dangerous offenders remain in prison, only about 62% of those sentenced to life imprisonment are still incarcerated.
Turn to Toronto’s Mass Tsang for Your Criminal Defence
While few of our Greater Toronto Area clients face potential life sentences if convicted of their criminal charges, specific drug crimes, aggravated sexual assault, and impaired driving causing death carry the possibility. No matter what the offence, no one wants to spend even one day in prison, let alone suffer the other potential consequences of a criminal conviction. Thus, to ensure the most effective defence against any criminal charges you might be facing, turn to the expertise of experienced criminal defence lawyers like the ones at Mass Tsang. With over three decades of experience strategizing effective defences for their clients, schedule your free consultation with Mass Tsang Today.