When it comes to justice, I try to firmly believe in mercy. I’ve never liked dealing punishment for punishment’s’ sake. Yet sometimes mercy is not what is best in a given situation. Sometimes, justice systems extend mercy in the wrong places.
Chance Macdonald — 22 years old, Queen’s University student, and originally charged with sexual assault and forcible confinement of a 16-year-old survivor — had his sentencing delayed because, as his defence argued, it would tarnish his record too much for his four-month internship at professional services firm Deloitte Canada, and by extension, interfere with his business degree. Interestingly, Justice Letourneau, who presided over this case, was also a Queen’s jock.
When Macdonald was sentenced, it was under a plea deal for common assault. As VICE reports, the prosecutor, Gerard Laardhuis, stated that the deal went through “in part because [the survivor] didn’t want to face a trial and the possibility of being disbelieved in court.” Macdonald’s relatively light sentence is two years’ probation, with 88 days of “intermittent jail time” served on weekends.
Legal leniency has historically been unfairly afforded to criminals of privilege, particularly in sexual assault cases. Brock Turner, John Enochs, Austin Wilkerson: to go into all the nauseating examples would take much more space than I have available. Here, I’d like to focus on debunking one very specific prevalent notion: that academic or athletic achievement in youth is an excuse for crime.
Even under Canada and the USA’s punitive systems, which I personally deplore for placing punishment above rehabilitation, laws aren’t arbitrary: we decide them based on what we consider morally right and wrong, and what will be best for society. Of course, legal and moral are hardly synonymous.
Talent and achievement don’t come into modern notions of morality, nor does talent guarantee long-term positive productivity. You can be great at business and still a danger to society. If achievement is irrelevant to the foundations of our legal system, why are we excusing people from the full extent of that very legal system based on it?
Furthermore, going to upper-class schools and having time to get good at mainstream extracurriculars and take on time-intensive internships is a matter of, yes, privilege. It’s not realistic for everyone, and when it is, it’s significantly harder for some than others. Race, gender, and economic class all play a role in this.
When judges give byes to those who resemble their younger selves, it doesn’t just reinforce that systemic inequality, but makes me question the impartiality that the judge is supposed to be exerting. After all, if you can dismiss one person’s crime by calling it a “fork in the road” of their life, as Justice Letourneau put it, why can’t you do that for everyone? Why not for all youth offenders?
Even if the similarity and the empathy are not the reasons du jour, they will always be read by others as the reasons de facto. That de-legitimizes the justice system entirely and makes it clear that you can get away with anything just by being charming, attractive, or talented enough.
Once again, I would like to reiterate that mercy and sympathy don’t have to be alien to our courts. I 100% advocate for things like character witnesses and psych evaluations, and more leniency for mental health issues and other legitimate moral circumstances that actually affect a person’s judgment or actions, with consideration given to the crime and circumstances.
But in sexual violence cases, ‘he’s a promising business student’ and ‘he’s young’ alone cannot continue to be excuses. We cannot treat fancy internships as get-out-of-jail-free cards. We cannot relax sentences to the point where they’re no different than a particularly rough grounding.
If we’re doing that simply out of pity for the perpetrators, then there are plenty of people who deserve that clemency just as much. But a “bright future” doesn’t deserve to be just as bright following such heinous acts. Until our justices figure that out, the danger to the rest of society will only grow.