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Jody Wilson-Raybould gives judges discretion to waive victim fines for poor criminals

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould is giving judges the ability to waive victims’ surcharges when offenders don’t have the money to pay.

After tabling a bill in the House of Commons to repeal the mandatory fine imposed by the Conservatives, Wilson-Raybould said the change gives judges discretion in cases where the offender faces financial hardship due to unemployment, family supports or homelessness.

Judges will be required to provide an explanation for their decision to waive the fine.

The federal victim surcharge was introduced in 1989 as a way to make offenders more accountable and to offset some of the costs of funding victims’ programs and services.

Prior to 2013, judges had the ability to waive the fine when the offender was too poor to pay, but the Conservatives made it mandatory and doubled the amount judges were required to impose.

Taking responsibility

Wilson-Raybould said the amounts will remain in the legislation as a way to ensure the offender takes responsibility for recognizing the impact of their crime.

“We believe that offenders that have the ability to pay, should pay and that money goes directly to supporting victims in provinces and territories,” she said. “But we also believe we need to have a fair justice system that recognizes that people come before the justice system and have varying circumstances.”

Sue O’Sullivan, federal ombudsman for victims of crime, said the changes make sense in light of a number of Charter challenges before the courts. But she called for clear parameters around financial hardship and ongoing monitoring of hard data to ensure waiving the surcharge does not become routine.

“We have the principles of sentencing, we also can’t lose sight of this accountability to victims,” she said. “The principles of reparation and accountability need to be upheld out of respect for victims.”

Judges should also consider “fine option programs” so offenders can contribute through community service if they can’t afford to pay.

‘Step in right direction’

Mary Campbell, a criminal justice expert and former director general of the corrections and criminal justice directorate at Public Safety Canada, questioned why governments fund victims’ services “off the backs of indigent offenders,” but said making the charge discretionary is a “step in the right direction.”

“Making the surcharge mandatory was one of the many just stupid ideas from the last government,” she told CBC News. “No one supported it, including many judges. People are convicted without a dime to their names and are then saddled with a debt that they can never pay.”

One of the consequences has been that the offender could not apply for a pardon, since all parts of the sentence, including monetary charges, must be fulfilled before the waiting period for a pardon can even start to run.