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Are you curious about the difference between consecutive vs concurrent sentences? Even at the best of times, criminal justice in Canada is a contentious and controversial subject of seemingly endless debate with “tough on crime” conservatives on one side and more lenient and liberal-minded citizens and politicians on the other.

But the scales of justice in criminal courts, as statistics have shown over and over, are often weighed against the most vulnerable and marginalized people in society, whether they’re people of colour or people struggling with poverty, mental health issues, and addiction.

Public attitudes on matters of criminal justice, though, continue to evolve as Canada and other nations shift policies toward a more fair and just system for all, where rehabilitation and compassion overtake the knee-jerk reactionary desire for vengeful punishment against people who commit crimes. But Canada’s approach to prison sentences for crimes of violence and other offences is often confusing, especially when it comes to sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimums, as well as the difference between concurrent and consecutive sentences in criminal court cases.

Consecutive vs concurrent sentences in Canada

Term of imprisonment

Being found guilty of a crime in Canada can carry many consequences, including jail time, fines, community service, and several other court-imposed conditions depending on the nature and severity of the crime, as well as the criminal record of the offender at the time of sentencing. Typically, Canadian criminal courts can hand down one of four distinct sentences which are known as concurrent, consecutive, intermittent, or conditional sentences.

Offenders convicted of a crime can be sent to prison or a term of house arrest with strict conditions, or sentences that involve being released “into the community,” which also carry their own set of conditions under probation orders, the Criminal Code of Canada, or provincial statutes such as the Provincial Offences Act of Ontario. Prison sentences of less than two years are handled provincially, while longer prison terms are handled by the federal correctional system.

Sentencing Examples

As is always the case with criminal law, don’t risk a term of imprisonment. Speak to a criminal defense attorney in Canada and get legal advice. Below are some things to ask a lawyer about:

  • If you are found guilty, how should you prepare for a sentencing hearing?
  • What is the likely total sentence time?
  • How many other criminal cases has the attorney handled?
  • How does the attorney-client relationship work? Can you admit guilt?
  • What are possible aggravating factors in your case?
  • What is the best way to go through the criminal justice system?

Canada’s four types of prison sentences

In Canada, offenders who find themselves convicted on multiple criminal charges can be sentenced to prison terms to be served concurrently, meaning they can receive more than one sentence at a time but get to serve them at the same time. Essentially, their multiple convictions and subsequent sentences are merged or aggregated or combined into one prison term served all at once.

Hypothetically, someone sentenced for multiple offences can receive a pair of concurrent sentences of a year each, meaning they get two-year-long sentences but only serve a year in jail for both crimes. When an offender’s sentences are merged and served concurrently, they also take into account their eligibility for parole and early release.

Criminal Code of Canada

On the other hand, criminals in Canada can also be sent to prison for consecutive sentences, where they’re convicted of multiple crimes after being brought up on more than one charge. An offender who receives consecutive sentences, therefore, has to stay in jail for each sentencing term, one after another. When one prison term ends, unlike concurrent sentences, the offender’s next sentence begins.

The Criminal Code of Canada, meanwhile, prescribes that all prison sentences are to be served concurrently, though a trial judge has certain discretion and can order a consecutive sentence if he or she sees fit.

Though provincial legislation can diverge from the Criminal Code in this respect, such as the Provincial Offences Act of Ontario, where the situation is reversed and sentences handed down in that province are all consecutive, subject to a court order for multiple prison terms to be served out all at the same time, or concurrently.

Criminal Code of Canada

Canadian criminal justice system

Another type of prison sentence is known as an “intermittent” sentence, where an offender has been convicted of a crime but sentenced to prison for three months or less. In these situations, those convicted who receive intermittent sentences serve prison time in stages, such as on weekends while being allowed out in the community to work during the week.

They can, for instance, be let out on a Monday morning to continue their employment and have to report back to jail at the end of the work week and spend the weekend in a cell.

But people serving an intermittent sentence can lose the privilege of being allowed to remain in the community should they commit another crime during the term. In those cases, the intermittent sentence is replaced by a consecutive sentence, and they have to stay in jail for the rest of the term and are no longer allowed out in the community on weekdays as before.

Consecutive vs concurrent sentences

The fourth type of sentence in Canada is known as a conditional sentence, where someone is convicted of a crime but not held in custody for the term of their sentence. Instead, they’re released out into the community under a set of conditions they must uphold in order to stay out of jail. Conditional sentences are only handed out under certain circumstances.

Depending on the nature of the offence, as long as there’s no mandated minimum sentence for the offence for which they’ve been convicted, offenders can receive conditional sentences if their term is for “two years less a day,” which keeps the case under provincial oversight. In addition, a criminal court judge has to be confident that someone who receives a conditional sentence is unlikely to re-offend or be a public safety risk.

But people serving out a conditional sentence are not immune to being sent to jail if they’re convicted of another crime during the term of that sentence. In those cases, their conditional sentence gets suspended or “put on hold” until their non-conditional jail sentence is up.

Consecutive vs concurrent sentences

Conditional Sentences

While under court-imposed conditions, offenders are under the supervision of probation or parole officers who check in periodically and ensure those conditions are being met. Conditional sentences carry both mandatory and optional conditions that an offender must abide by to stay out of jail.

Mandatory conditions include staying out of trouble with the police by “keeping the peace,” while always showing up for court dates. Offenders also must keep their probation or parole officers in the loop and remain in the province in which they’ve been convicted. Moreover, they have to tell their supervising officer about any job changes or if they move residences or legally change their name.

Other conditions are optional and often apply to different offenders depending on the crime of which they’ve been convicted. For example, a person serving a conditional sentence for drunk driving might be placed on a curfew and be required to attend a drug and alcohol treatment program and refrain from intoxicating substances. Conditions can also be geographic in nature, such as prohibiting the offender from being in bars or casinos or certain parts of a city where their original offence took place.

Mitigating factors

Speak to a law firm and find out how many years’ sentence you might get if you are found guilty. There is a great range of punishment, which will change from a fine for a DUI to life sentences for murder. The longest sentences can also include rape and attempted murder. If you are only found guilty of one offence, it will be a smaller punishment than for multiple crimes. Always find out what the mitigating factors could be, and think about if you can make a plea bargain.

If you are found guilty, you will need to go before the sentencing judge. You can then try and appeal the decision as the “appellate.” A criminal defense lawyer can point you in the right direction, and help you avoid long sentences of imprisonment.

Consecutive vs concurrent sentences Canada conclusion

There’s certainly no one-size-fits-all solution for criminal justice matters and one offender’s circumstances can differ wildly from another’s, even if they’ve been accused of and convicted of similar offences. Criminal court judges are given different options and, in an ideal world, carefully consider an offender’s background when deciding how to appropriately and justly hold them accountable after they’ve been found guilty of a criminal offence.

Crown prosecutors and criminal defence lawyers will often differ wildly as they urge judges to sentence offenders after the conclusion of a trial or after a guilty plea. With that in mind, judges have to be both mindful of case law precedent, the unique background of an offender, and the desires and wishes of victims of crime to ensure an offender is rightfully punished in a way that deters others from committing the crime at issue.

We hope you found this guide on consecutive vs concurrent sentences helpful.