COVID Creates Quandaries in BC Sentencings

Wiki Commons: Dylan OliphantWiki Commons: Dylan Oliphant

Since the pandemic’s onset, British Columbia’s courts have struggled with how to approach sentencing in the context of new health concerns. Many courts have pointed to the unique concerns facing prison populations and the government’s slow response to COVID-19 in these settings. For instance, in Fraser Valley’s Mission Institution, 120 inmates and many staff members contracted COVID-19 in early 2020. One of the infected inmates pointed to a lack of resources and to a lack of quick response as reasons that contributed to this outbreak.[1] This particular outbreak at Mission Institution attracted much attention, including from the Vancouver Prison Justice Day Committee, members of which rallied outside of the institution to call for better health and safety conditions for prisoners.[2] Given the unique circumstances that prisoners face and the prominence of the issues that COVID-19 has presented for prison populations, it is no wonder that courts have needed to adapt their approach to sentencing.

In R v Stevens, which was decided in May 2020, the court provided some guidance on how to approach sentencing in the time of COVID-19.[3] This case involved a situation where a man plead guilty to a number of crimes, counsel submitted a joint submission of time served, and the court had to analyze how COVID-19 impacted sentencing, and in particular, whether or not COVID-19 warranted a “significant reduction of sentence”.[4] One of the reasons for the joint submission from counsel was to remove Stevens from jail because of the pandemic, partially based on the rationale that those in jail are more susceptible to the health risks arising from COVID-19.[5] The Provincial Court of British Columbia found that the pandemic was a “collateral consequence”, and that while the pandemic is not irrelevant, “it cannot justify the imposition of a sentence that is disproportionate to the degree of seriousness of the offence and his moral responsibility would otherwise be contrary to the public interest”.[6]  Based on this, the court found that COVID-19 did not justify a significant reduction of sentence.

In a more recent January 2021 case, R v Young, the Provincial Court of British Columbia was once again confronted with the issue of sentencing during a pandemic.[7] However, this case presented a further issue for the court: while in R v Stevens, Stevens had no specific personal circumstances that presented a particular risk in relation to COVID-19, this was not the case in R v Young.[8] The court in this case discussed how Young was 61 years old, suffered from a multitude of heart and artery issues, lung cancer, and a host of other issues.[9]  The court determined that  a jail sentence may be “disproportionately punitive to Mr. Young if he contracts COVID-19 in custody”, especially because of his health issues and uncertainty surrounding when he will be able to receive a vaccine.[10] Because of this, the court sentenced Young to only one year of incarceration, and two years of subsequent probation.[11]

Ultimately, the courts face a difficult task when trying to pursue the goals of justice in the context of issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These goals can likely best be served by prison policies that ensure the safety of the inmates, including adequate access to resources and immediate and prompt responses to any outbreaks. Furthermore, while British Columbia has plans in place for vaccinating prisoners and prison staff, it is vital that governments are held accountable and are transparent as to this plan, its progress, and any problems that arise in its implementation.[12]

 

This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC Rights Watch Student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the view of the CCLA or PBSC.


[1] Sean Boynton & Srushti Gangdev, “Inmate at B.C. prison says response to massive COVID-19 outbreak was ‘not nice at all’”, Global News (17 June 2020), online: <https://globalnews.ca/news/7074685/mission-institution-coronavirus-inmate/>.

[2] Amy Smart, “B.C. rally calls for safe release of prisoners due to COVID-19 outbreak”, CBC News (3 May 2020), online: <https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/b-c-rally-calls-for-safe-release-of-prisoners-due-to-covid-19-outbreak-1.5554114>.

[3] R v Stevens, 2020 BCPC 104.

[4] Ibid at para 44-45.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid at para 62.

[7] R v Young, 2021 BCPC 6.

[8] Stevens, supra at para 64.

[9] Young, supra at para 55-67.

[10] Ibid at para 182.

[11] Ibid at para 217.

[12] The Canadian Press, “Some provinces yet to say when jail inmates to be vaccinated against COVID-19”, Surrey Now-Leader (21 January 2021), online: <https://www.surreynowleader.com/news/some-provinces-yet-to-say-when-jail-inmates-to-be-vaccinated-against-covid-19/>.

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