Canada's Highest Court Rules Against Life Imprisonment

The unanimous decision means that Canadian offenders must be offered parole after 25 years.

The Canadian Supreme Court held unanimously that sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole are “incompatible with human dignity,” and are cruel and unusual by nature. As such, the case, Attorney General of Quebec, et al. v. Alexandre Bissonnette, set parole eligibility at 25 years. 

Amy Fettig, Executive Director at The Sentencing Project, here in the District, issued a statement supporting the ruling. Calling the United States a “disturbing outlier,” Fettig writes “55,000 people are currently serving life without parole. Yet few other countries routinely pursue sentences beyond 20 years.”

The Canadian court ruled that sentencing killers to lengthy prison terms that offer no hope of eventual freedom could bring the “administration of justice into disrepute”.

Fettig urges American policymakers and courts to consider the ruling a model for creating a more humane criminal legal system here. She wrote further, 

“The Sentencing Project has recommended the abolition of life sentences because research shows that life sentences do not deter crime or make communities safer. People convicted of even the most serious offenses typically age out of crime within 20 years.”

In an analysis published by the journal Criminology in late 2021, the racial disparities in American sentencing were glaring. 

The findings of the study included:

  • Of some 4,800 offenders eligible for life imprisonment — nearly 1,200 were sentenced to life
  • Black offenders were fewer than one third of cases but made up just about half of those eligible for life sentences.
  • White offenders accounted for more than one third of all cases but made up less than 25% of those eligible for life sentences.

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