What are mandatory minimum jail sentences?

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What are mandatory minimum jail sentences?

Mandatory minimum sentences mean that a judge is not able to sentence a person to something lower than what the mandatory minimum sentence is. Typically, judges would have what is called “discretion” to sentence an offender to what they determine to be the most appropriate and fit sentence. However, if Parliament has dictated that there is a mandatory minimum sentence, the judge cannot go below that minimum. However, sometimes those mandatory minimum sentences are struck down by the courts and therefore may not be in force. If they are in force, then it may be possible to challenge the constitutionality of the mandatory minimum sentences.


The introduction of mandatory minimums in Canadian criminal law can be traced back to various societal impulses, among them a desire to deter potential offenders and to ensure that certain crimes are met with uniformity in punishment. Advocates argue that they provide consistency in sentencing, emphasizing that similar crimes should yield similar punishments irrespective of the judicial officer presiding.

Many believe that these sentences send a strong message about the reprehensibility of certain offences, thereby acting as a deterrent to would-be offenders and underlining society’s condemnation of such acts.


Throughout the Criminal Code of Canada, there are several provisions which stipulate mandatory minimum penalties, primarily for offences involving firearms, sexual offences against minors, and certain drug offences. 

For instance, under the Criminal Code, first-degree murder (it was planned and deliberate), carries an automatic life sentence with no possibility of parole for 25 years. For second-degree murder (was not planned and does not fall under categories for first-degree murder), the mandatory minimum parole eligibility is 10 years but can be as long as 25 years.

Another example can be found in section 151(a) of the Criminal Code, which deals with sexual interference with a minor. If the prosecutor elects to proceed by indictment and the victim is under 16 years of age, the offence carries a mandatory minimum sentence of one year. However, this section of the Criminal Code has been ruled unconstitutional in many Provinces, so the mandatory minimum sentence does not apply.


Despite their intent to ensure uniformity and deterrence, mandatory minimum sentences have not been without controversy.


One primary concern revolves around the erosion of judicial discretion. Traditionally, Canadian sentencing law has stuck to the principle that a sentence should be proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender. By imposing a floor on sentences, mandatory minimums can sometimes result in penalties that are disproportionate to the circumstances of the offence or the individual offender, contravening this foundational principle.


As a consequence, numerous mandatory minimum provisions have faced challenges under section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment. In R v. Nur (2015), the Supreme Court of Canada found that certain mandatory minimum sentences for firearm offences were unconstitutional. The Court ruled that while the sentences might be appropriate for some individuals, they could be grossly disproportionate for others, thus violating section 12 of the Charter.

Mandatory minimum sentences, while designed to promote uniformity and denounce particular offences, are a contentious feature of Canadian criminal law. Their intersection with constitutional rights, concerns about their efficacy, and the broader dialogue about the purpose of criminal justice make them a central topic in modern legal discussion.