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Can cultural differences be considered in criminal sentences?

When someone is convicted of a crime in the province of Ontario, depending on the thing they are found guilty of, the penalties can be severe. This is not always the case however and for various reasons judges may order a sentence that is lighter than what one would expect. One such sentence was recently overturned by the Ontario Court of Appeal.

An 18-month sentence was given to a man who was convicted of sexually assaulting his wife as well as physically abusing her, and their two sons. The assaults were uncovered after one of his sons told a teacher at his school. The activity began in Iran, where they previously lived, and continued after the family moved to Canada. In the sentence the lower court judge issued, the judge referred to cultural differences twice.

The case was appealed and the Court Of Appeal ruled that criminal conduct could not be excused or mitigated by cultural differences. The three judge panel also took issue with the following findings of the lower court judge:

  • That the man’s wife and sons did not have injuries
  • That the man was not at risk of reoffending
  • That the sentences should be concurrent

In the ruling issued by the Court of Appeal, in addition to the 18-month prison sentence, the man received two and a half years more years, with one year’s credit to account for the time he already served both in prison and on parole. In support of the ruling the justices said that the use of cultural differences to mitigate or excuse conduct considered criminal, would result in the creation of a second class of persons.