systemic racism

Court of Appeal to Judge How to Weigh Systemic Racism When Sentencing Black Offenders

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

Later this month, the Ontario Court of Appeal is scheduled to hear a case where the Crown prosecutor is challenging the “lenient” 15-month sentence given to a black Toronto man for carrying a loaded firearm.  Many are expecting that the judgment in this appeal will provide guidance to trial judges on how systemic and background factors are to be applied during the sentencing of black offenders, and potentially all other minorities, in Canada.

WHAT HAPPENED?

In 2014, the police were called regarding a home invasion in Scarborough.  At the scene, the police came upon four black males walking in the parking lot.  When an officer stopped the young men, Kevin Morris (“Morris”) ran.  After a chase, Morris was apprehended by police and his jacket, which he left in a stairwell during the chase, contained a loaded handgun. 

A jury found Morris guilty last September of possession of an unauthorized firearm, possession of a prohibited firearm with ammunition, and carrying a concealed weapon. 

Superior Court Justice Shaun Nakatsuru sentenced Kevin Morris (“Morris”), a 26-year-old first-time offender, to 15 months in custody due to the disadvantages and systemic black racism he faced growing up in Toronto. 

Justice Nakatsuru described the sentence as “lenient” and reasoned that this type of sentence was to address “one small step at a time, the problem of the disproportionate incarceration of black offenders”. Morris’ sentence was reduced to 1 year for various Charter breaches.

According to court documents, Morris was raised by a single mother in a neighbourhood that experienced violence and criminal activity.  Morris never graduated from high school and admitted that he felt unsafe travelling to work as he had to enter rivaling neighbourhoods.  He was diagnosed with PTSD and paranoia in 2013 after being stabbed for a third time. 

The Crown prosecutor had requested a four to four and a half year sentence for Morris arguing that illegal gun possession results in the “often immeasurable” human cost of gun crimes.

Morris’ defence lawyers requested a 12-month sentence and submitted an expert report outlining the impact of crime and criminal justice on black Canadians.  The report detailed how black Canadians experience obstacles in pursing educationa nd employment, and explained about discrimination in social services.

Morris’ lawyer, Faisal Mirza, stated:

It’s clear to everyone in the Toronto area that there are disproportionate numbers of young black men that are prosecuted and sentenced by judges based on pretty rudimentary information on who they are, where they came from, and why they got to the point of committing the crime they are being sentenced for.

Justice Nakatsuru wrote in his decision:

In our system, a sentence is not just about the crime.  It must also be about the offender.

As the legal system runs today, the courts are required to take into account the backgrounds of Indigenous offenders when sentencing, paying specific attention to systemic or historical factors such as residential schools and systemic racism.  A victory for Morris at his appeal may lead to a similar requirement requiring the courts to take into account the impact of race and culture on black offenders in Canada. 

INTERVENERS IN MORRIS’ APPEAL

At the Court of Appeal, there are 14 interveners that have been granted permission to provide joint submissions to the court on the subject of systemic racism, including human and civil rights activists, ethnic organizations and legal clinics.  Several interveners are asking the court to allow culture assessments to apply to all minority groups, not only black offenders.

Interveners in criminal proceedings must receive permission to provide submissions to the court and are typically only granted permission sparingly.  Chief Justice George Strathy wrote in his decision to allow interveners to weigh in on the appeal in the Morris case:

But the issues that arise in this appeal transcend the interests of the parties and are of significance to the administration of criminal justice.  The proposed interveners are well-recognized organizations with experience and expertise in the issues raised in this appeal.  They can offer perspectives that are different from those provided by the Crown and the respondent.

The Black Legal Action Centre and the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers are entering a joint submission at the appeal and on their behalf Johnathan Shime states:

This case represents an opportunity for the Ontario Court of Appeal to consider what role race and, more particularly, anti-black racism should play in sentencing of offenders. 

The appeal is scheduled for September 24, 2019 in Toronto.  We will report the results of this potentially ground breaking appeal decision in this blog when it becomes available.

In the meantime, if you have been charged with a crime or have questions regarding your legal rights, please contact the experienced criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947.  We maintain a 24-hour call service to protect your rights and to ensure that you have access to justice at all times.