Is a conditional discharge an appropriate sentence for assault?

A man getting punched in the face.
A man getting punched in the face. Stock photo by Getty Images

Do the crime, do the time — or not.

In a recent court case in Corner Brook, N.L., a man walked away virtually scot-free after punching another man in the face outside a bar.

In R v. Shears, Kerry Keith Shears received a conditional discharge for the assault.

A conditional discharge is a sentence where the accused is not penalized for the crime committed, but must follow conditions attached in order to keep the discharge.

The events that lead to the assault go something like this: Shears was talking to someone called “Kraft Dinner”; their conversation was interrupted by the victim — Anthony Young — who was then punched in the face. Young fell down and suffered a “cut lip.”

Given the serious nature of assault, and the fact Young did suffer an injury, albeit minor, why would the court let Shears off with a conditional discharge? Wouldn’t a harsher sentence deter Shears from taking a swing at someone else in the future?

In this case, Judge Wayne Gorman felt that giving the accused a conditional discharge, with three months’ probation and a few monetary fines, was appropriate given the circumstances of the case as well as other factors.

In looking at the reasoning, Gorman quoted s. 718 of the Criminal Code, which states the fundamental purpose of sentencing “is to contribute…to respect for the law and the maintenance of a just, peaceful and safe society.” Furthermore, he cited the points of sentencing, which are:

  • separating offenders from society, where necessary;
  • denouncing unlawful conduct;
  • general deterrence;
  • rehabilitation and;
  • the promoting of a “sense of responsibility in offenders, and acknowledgment of the harm done to victims and the community.”

In cases of violent crimes, like assault, courts look at a few different factors when considering sentencing:

  • proportionality of the crime fitting the punishment;
  • the best interests of the offender;
  • the public interest.

In terms of proportionality, the court cited R v. Cluney, which states: “The appropriate range of sentence is related to the gravity of the offence and the moral blameworthiness of the offender.”

In other words, how bad was the assault in this case? Yes, a person got injured, but it was a minor injury and won’t cause lasting harm. Add to that the accused only punched Young once.

Secondly, is it in the best interest of the accused to give him some jail time? The judge didn’t believe so. Gorman decided on the conditional discharge, because the accused is a relatively young man, had no prior convictions, and the likelihood of rehabilitation is relatively good.

Lastly, will the public interest be negatively served if Shears is given a conditional sentence? This question really asks whether the public would be endangered if they let the offender back into the public. The court found that given the isolated nature of this offence, the conditional discharge would not be contrary to the public interest.

Some believe conditional discharges are not warranted for violent crimes such as assault. After all, you can’t just go around punching people and expect not to be punished for it — this isn’t Gotham, where Batman administers his own brand of justice.

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