In recent years the Supreme Court of Canada has sent an important message in relation to sentencing for sexual offences against children: the sentences must increase. Over the years, the sentencing principles used to determine the appropriate sentence for those convicted of sexual offences against children have evolved significantly. With a much deeper understanding of the lifelong trauma caused by sexual abuse, courts across Canada have begun imposing more severe penalties on those convicted.
As recently as 2010, those convicted of committing explicit sexual acts on children were regularly being sentenced to lower single digit prison sentences. To reflect the trauma caused by childhood sexual abuse, the Federal government has recently amended the Criminal Code to increase the maximum penalties for those convicted of certain sexual offences against children. The maximum penalty for sexual interference for example, has increased to fourteen years in prison.
In 2019, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in R. v. Freisen, a case involving a man charged with sexual interference after having explicit sexual contact with his intimate partner’s young daughter. The accused was sentenced to 6 years in prison at trial, but the sentenced was reduced to 4.5 years on appeal. After hearing the case the Supreme Court restored the 6-year sentence, arguing that the trial court had imposed the correct sentence.
The Supreme Court went on to justify the decision by pointing out that the maximum penalty for sexual interference had increased and therefore the average sentence should increase as well. The Court argued that the appropriate sentence for an individual convicted of sexual interference of this nature is an upper single digit to lower double digit prison sentence.
As directed by the Supreme Court, the sentencing ranges for those convicted of sexual offences against children have begun to rise. Recent Court of Appeal decisions have indicated that two years less a day is an appropriate prison sentence even for the most minor sexual offences against children. In one recent Ontario Court of Appeal case, the Court upheld a two-year sentence for an individual who had undressed and kissed his twelve-year-old niece on three occasions. The Court held that such a sentence was not at all inappropriate given the position of trust the accused held over the victim.
In another recent Court of Appeal decision, R. v. R.A. , the court upheld a 5 and a half year sentence for an individual who pled guilty to sexually assaulting a child. Citing the Freisen case, the Court referenced deterrence and denunciation as being of prime importance when sentencing those convicted of sexual offences against children. Using this justification, the Court upheld the sentence, stating that it was not at all inappropriate in the circumstances.
It is expected that in the years to come courts will continue to impose stricter penalties on those convicted of sexual offences against children, with average sentences becoming closer and closer to the maximum sanctions outlined in the Criminal Code.