Editorial: In defence of our judges

Last week, a Prince Albert judge handed down a sentence that has a lot of people angry.

We’re talking about the George Edward Sanderson case, where a 23-year-old man got three years for molesting teenage boys on James Smith Cree Nation and taking nude photographs of his victims. The sentence was part of a plea bargain with the Crown, which agreed to a more modest jail term in exchange for a guaranteed conviction.

A provincial court judge in Prince Albert accepted the deal, calling it “reasonable and appropriate.”

Social media filled up with comments decrying the decision. Some suggested that child molesters should go away for life. Others celebrated the thought that Sanderson might get sexually assaulted in prison. One popular comment questioned the very idea of plea bargaining in a case like Sanderson’s. Almost everyone agreed that three years is grossly insufficient, with many calling the justice system a “joke” or a “disgrace.”

A few even called out the judge himself.

Here at the Herald, we see horrific cases on almost a daily basis. Child abuse is, unfortunately, a common occurrence. In the most serious cases, which often involve years of unspeakable abuse, sentences usually hover around the five-year mark. We agree that’s too low for repeated sexual assault of a child.

But frustration and outrage shouldn’t lead to cruelty, nor to absurdly long sentences or apparently serious endorsements of prison rape. And it’s a poor reason to give up on our justice system, or to criticize the presiding judge – a man who has consistently given out fair and well-reasoned decisions in Prince Albert.

Judges have an extremely difficult job. They’re tasked with balancing competing, even contradictory demands. The Criminal Code tells them that their sentences should denounce evil conduct, but that they should also help rehabilitate the offender. They must aim to deter crime, but also promote a sense of responsibility in the criminal.

That’s a tall order.

Throughout our time in the courts, the reporters at the Herald have been impressed with the ability of our judges to live up to those demands. Their rulings are consistently fair, and backed up with sound reasoning. Even where we initially disagree, listening to them think their way through a difficult case is often enough to win us over.

In Canada, judges are also bound by precedent, which sets the range of sentences for every crime. That means they have to follow the decisions of higher courts, like the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal. So please, don’t criticize Prince Albert’s judges for giving five-year sentences to child molesters – as inadequate as that might seem. Those standards aren’t set here. They’re set in Ottawa and Regina.

For many, though, this case is different. The very mention of the term “plea bargain” or “plea deal” seems a bit unsavoury. It sounds like Mr. Sanderson is getting away with something, like maybe those boys he abused didn’t get the justice they deserve.

But really, this case isn’t unusual at all.

Roughly 90 per cent of all criminal cases are settled through guilty pleas, according to the federal Department of Justice. Probably most of those pleas involve negotiation, give and take, bargains. It’s a good thing too. Imagine 10 times as many trials winding their way through the courts, tying up the already overloaded schedules of lawyers, clerks and judges. Without plea bargains, justice would grind to a halt.

Sanderson, in pleading guilty, didn’t just make life easier for the courts. He also spared his three victims the trauma of taking the stand and reliving their experience. The plea deal Sanderson received, which shaved perhaps two years off his sentence, is the cost of that.

As a society, we should be prepared to bear it.