N.S. Crown questions conditional sentence given to Black man for gun offence

By Canadian Press

HALIFAX — The Crown said Tuesday it wasn't looking to overturn the sentence handed to a Black man caught with a loaded handgun in Halifax, but wants to know why the lower court judge came to her decision. 

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal heard the Crown's appeal Tuesday in the case of 25-year-old Rakeem Rayshon Anderson, who was found guilty on five firearm-related charges in June 2019. Police had found a .22-calibre revolver in his waistband following a traffic stop in November 2018.

In her February 2020 decision, provincial court Chief Judge Pamela Williams said her sentencing decision was supported by the impact of race and culture assessment on Anderson and by testimony about the availability of Afrocentric services in prisons and jails as well as the support the man had in his community.

Pioneered by Nova Scotia's justice system, the assessments — known as IRCAs — are meant to help guide judges when considering how systemic racism and the life experience of an offender should factor into their sentence.

Williams handed down a conditional sentence of two years less a day, along with two years’ probation, while the Crown had asked for a federal prison sentence of two to three years.

Crown attorney Mark Scott told the appeal court Tuesday, “We entirely support the value and use of IRCAs as they serve as incredibly important reminders of the unfortunate and devastating history of the African Nova Scotian people and they provide critical context.”

Scott, however, said the Crown is concerned the trial judge placed less emphasis on sentencing principles of deterrence and denunciation regarding gun offences in arriving at the conditional sentence. “Restorative justice that aims to get at root causes of criminal behaviour may be simply too broad for what the court can do in that particular case,” he said.

Scott said the Crown is simply seeking guidance from the court around sentencing ranges in such instances where IRCAs are rightly under consideration.

In her decision, Williams said that regardless of the sentence she imposed on Anderson, it would likely “do little to deter others in similar circumstances” because of socio-economic forces that are “firmly entrenched in systemic racism and marginalization.” 

“So, should the justice system continue to emphasize deterrence and denunciation by imposing stricter sentences on all offences involving the possession of handguns or should it, on a case-by-case basis, employ a restorative yet denunciatory community option for those who are ready to make the necessary change?” she wrote.

Anderson's lawyer, Roger Burrill, told the court he doesn't believe Williams erred in her sentencing, adding that the Crown has also adopted that position. Burrill added that Anderson had fared “relatively well” since the court's decision. “The principles of sentencing have actually worked in this case,” he said.

The African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition and the Ontario Criminal Lawyers' Association also appeared Tuesday as interveners and both voiced support for the use of the assessments.

Brandon Rolle, the coalition's lawyer, said if the court is to issue guidance, it needs to affirm the importance of IRCAs for the benefit of trial and sentencing judges. “The message should be that this evidence has value and can and should make a difference in sentencing,” Rolle said.

Rolle said the coalition is asking the court to recognize that the historical context of racism in Nova Scotia should inform any sentencing analysis for an African Nova Scotian offender and that IRCA reports be ordered any time an offender requests one.

“We submit that this evidence should be given a broad and flexible interpretation and substantively applied, and this area of the law should be given room to grow,” he said.

The five-member appeal court panel reserved its decision.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2021.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

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