Conditional sentencing was enacted in 1996 by Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government despite heavy criticism from opposition parties. Under this alternative sentencing option, an offender sentenced to a term of imprisonment of less than two years could be ordered to serve that sentence in the community rather than in prison. This legislation was drafted in an effort to reduce Canadian incarceration rates.
Since the introduction of conditional sentencing, the use of prison sentencing has been in steady decline while the use of conditional sentencing and probation has been steadily increasing.
Conditional Sentencing has now become widely used in cases of child pornography, major assault, sexual assault and other sex related offences, as well as for homicide convictions.
All offense are eligible for conditional sentencing, except those with a minimum term of imprisonment. During a sentencing hearing, neither the prosecution nor the defense need to establish that a conditional sentence is appropriate or inappropriate, or that a convict will or will not be a danger to the community. A judge has full power to grant a conditional sentence regardless of circumstances, as long as no minimum sentence is required.
The year conditional sentencing came into effect (1996/97) the number of jail sentences dropped by 5%. The following year (1997/98) rates dropped another 9%, and in 2000/01 rates plummeted another 18%. 31% of conditional sentences over that time period were for a violent offence. (Source: Statistics Canada)
While the use of conditional sentencing has grown in popularity, the terms of such sentences have decreased. The mean length of conditional sentences in 1997/98 was 7.5 months, declining to 5.4 months by 2000/01. In 1997/98 13% of conditional sentence terms were greater than 12 months. This percentage also dropped by 2000/01 to 7%. (Source: Statistics Canada)
Repeated attempts by Canadian Alliance and Conservative opposition parties to have the government place restrictions on the use of conditional sentencing have failed.