Adult criminal court statistics in Canada, 2011/2012

By Jillian Boyce

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In Canada, the criminal court system is complex, consisting of multiple levels of court, with responsibilities shared between federal, provincial and territorial governments. Criminal courts are responsible for deciding the culpability of those accused of a criminal or federal statute offence, as well as determining an appropriate sentence should the accused plead or be found guilty (Department of Justice Canada 2005a).

This Juristat article uses data from the 2011/2012 Integrated Criminal Court Survey (ICCS) to report on the characteristics and trends in completed criminal court cases involving adults (18 years and older).1 More specifically, this Juristat presents the number and types of cases completed in adult criminal courts at both the national and provincial/territorial levels, as well as the characteristics of those appearing in court. Furthermore, the outcomes of completed cases, the sentences imposed and the length of time taken to complete cases are examined.

The data presented in this article exclude information from superior courts in Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well as municipal courts in Quebec due to the unavailability of these data. As a result, this report may underestimate the severity of sentences, as well as case elapsed times, since the more serious cases are typically completed in superior courts. In instances where an adult criminal court case involves more than one charge, the case is represented by the most serious offence.2 Also, due to jurisdictional differences in the structure and operation of courts, which may impact survey results, comparisons between jurisdictions should be made with caution. Other data considerations are noted where applicable.

Cases completed in adult criminal court decline from previous year

Overall, just under 386,500 cases were completed in the adult criminal court system in 2011/2012, involving close to 1.2 million Criminal Code and other federal statute offences, such as drug-related offences (Table 1). The number of cases completed in 2011/2012 represented a 6% decrease from the previous year (Chart 1),3 and was the lowest number of cases completed in adult court since 2006/2007.

Chart 1 Cases completed in adult criminal court, Canada, 2005/2006 to 2011/2012

Description for chart 1

The decrease in cases completed was seen virtually across the country, with all provinces and territories, except Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec, reporting a decline in 2011/2012 (Table 2). The Northwest Territories saw the greatest decrease in completed cases, down 17% from the previous year, followed by Prince Edward Island (-13%) and Yukon (-10%).4 Newfoundland and Labrador reported the only increase (+2%) in the number of cases completed in 2011/2012, whereas Quebec remained stable.

The decrease in cases completed also occurred for nearly all types of cases (Table 3). The largest declines in 2011/2012 were for cases involving impaired driving, with almost 7,500 fewer cases completed (-15%), as well as those that involved theft with about 3,200 fewer cases completed (-7%), and fraud with about 2,200 fewer cases completed (-15%). Among the few exceptions were unlawfully at large cases and drug possession cases, which each increased by 2% from 2010/2011.

Cases completed in adult courts most commonly involve non-violent offences

Cases completed in adult criminal courts most frequently involve offences that are non-violent in nature. About three-quarters (76%) of cases completed in adult court in 2011/2012 involved property offences, administration of justice offences, traffic offences, or other Criminal Code or federal statute offences.

Similar to previous years, 10 offences accounted for the majority (70%) of completed cases in adult criminal courts in 2011/2012 (Chart 2). Of these 10 offences, 3 were of a violent nature – common assault, major assault and uttering threats. Overall, impaired driving was the most common offence completed in adult courts, representing 11% of completed cases in 2011/2012, followed by theft (10%), common assault (10%) and failure to comply with an order (9%).

Chart 2 Ten most common cases completed in adult criminal court, Canada, 2011/2012

Description for chart 2

Majority of adult court cases involve males, younger adults

Mirroring trends in police-reported data (Brennan 2012), cases completed in adult criminal court most frequently involve male accused. More specifically, in 2011/2012, about 8 in 10 (81%) cases completed involved a male accused, a finding that held true regardless of the age group (Chart 3).5

Chart 3 Cases completed in adult criminal court, by age group and sex of the accused, Canada, 2011/2012

Description for chart 3

Males accounted for a larger proportion of accused persons among all types of cases completed, and had particularly high representation in cases involving sexual assault (98%), other sexual offences (97%) and weapon offences (91%).

About 1 in 5 (19%) cases completed in adult criminal court in 2011/2012 involved a female accused.6 Females were most commonly accused in cases involving property offences, in particular, theft (35%), fraud (30%) and possession of stolen property (27%). Aside from cases involving property offences, females were most frequently involved in cases for prostitution (34%) and failure to appear (23%).

Also similar to police-reported findings, adult criminal court cases involved a disproportionate number of young adults. For example, in 2011/2012, people aged 18 to 24 years were the accused in 30% of court cases, despite the fact that they represented 12% of the Canadian adult population.7,8 When looking at cases by specific offence, those involving robbery had the highest proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds, with half (50%) of the completed cases involving an accused person from that age group. Other cases that saw a relatively high proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds included cases involving drug possession (45%), break and enter (39%) and mischief (38%).

In contrast, people aged 55 to 89 years accounted for 6% of all cases completed in 2011/2012, yet represented 33% of the adult population.9,10 The relatively low proportion of accused adults aged 55 to 89 years held true across all types of cases.

Most cases completed in adult court result in a finding of guilt

Cases completed in adult criminal court typically result in one of three outcomes. The most common outcome is a finding of guilt, in which the accused either pleads guilty or is determined by the court to be responsible for having committed or attempted to commit a criminal offence.11 As well, case proceedings may be stopped or interrupted for a variety of reasons (e.g., lack of sufficient evidence or referral to an alternative measures program), which result in charges being stayed (suspended for up to one year), withdrawn, dismissed or discharged. Lastly, a case may result in an acquittal, in which the accused person is found not guilty of the charges presented before the court.12

In 2011/2012, just under two-thirds (64%) of completed cases resulted in a finding of guilt, a figure that has remained relatively stable over the past 10 years.13 The remainder of cases were either stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged (32%), acquitted (3%), or resulted in some other type of decision (1%) (Table 4).14

Some variation existed among the provinces and territories in regards to case outcomes, although a finding of guilt was the most common outcome across the country (Chart 4). On the whole, guilty outcomes were generally greatest in the eastern provinces. Prince Edward Island (78%) reported the highest proportion of cases found guilty, followed closely by Newfoundland and Labrador (77%), New Brunswick (77%) and Quebec (76%). Ontario and Alberta were the only provinces to report proportions of guilty cases that were lower than the national average at 56% and 62%, respectively.

Chart 4 Guilty cases in adult criminal court, by province and territory, 2011/2012

Description for chart 4

Provincial and territorial variations in guilty findings may be partly influenced by differences in court practices. Pre-charge screening, for example, is a formal process whereby a Crown prosecutor, rather than police, determines whether a charge is laid. Both New Brunswick and Quebec utilize a pre-charge screening system and had some of the highest proportions of guilty findings in 2011/2012, as well as some of the lowest proportions of cases that were stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged. That said, British Columbia also utilizes a pre-charge screening system, yet reported case outcomes that were similar to the national average.

Plea negotiations or “plea bargaining” may also have an impact on the types of decisions reached in adult criminal court. In a plea negotiation, the accused person agrees to plead guilty in return for the prosecutor agreeing to take, or refrain from taking, a particular course of action (Verdun-Jones 2012). Agreements could relate to the nature of charges, the sentence or the facts that may be presented in court. The extent to which plea negotiations are utilized in Canada remains unknown.

Cases involving violent offences result in guilty findings less often than other cases

In general, cases involving violent offences resulted in a finding of guilt less often than cases involving non-violent offences. In 2011/2012, half (50%) of all violent offence cases heard in adult criminal court resulted in a finding of guilt (Table 4), a figure that has remained relatively stable over the past decade.15

Cases involving specific violent offences, however, varied in their outcome of guilt, with both other sexual offence cases and robbery cases having higher than average outcomes of guilt in 2011/2012 (69% and 63%, respectively). In contrast, cases involving attempted murder resulted in a finding of guilt less often, with 26% of such cases having a guilty outcome. The majority of cases involving attempted murder were either stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged (58%).

Property offence cases represented approximately one-quarter (23%) of all cases completed in 2011/2012, and had outcomes of guilt (61%) that were similar to the national average (64%). The major exception to this finding was for cases involving possession of stolen property, which had a lower outcome of guilt at 46%.

Cases involving administration of justice offences represented 22% of all cases completed in 2011/2012 and had some of the highest findings of guilt. More specifically, about 7 in 10 (72%) cases involving administration of justice offences ended in a finding of guilt in 2011/2012. Within this type of offence category, cases completed for breach of probation and being unlawfully at large had the highest proportions of guilty outcomes at 80% and 82%, respectively. However, cases involving failure to appear resulted in cases being stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged (49%) as often as they were found guilty (49%).

Overall, cases for impaired driving, the most common type of case completed in adult criminal court in 2011/2012, had the greatest proportion of cases found guilty at 83%.

Case outcomes vary for males and females

In 2011/2012, 66% of cases involving male accused resulted in a guilty finding compared to 54% of those involving females (Chart 5).16 The higher proportion of guilty cases involving males held true across most types of cases, including robbery, other sexual offences, major and common assault, criminal harassment, theft, break and enter, possession of stolen property and other drug offences (namely, trafficking, importing, exporting and production).

Chart 5 Guilty cases in adult criminal court, by selected type of offence, by sex, Canada, 2011/2012

Description for chart 5

Exceptions to this finding included cases involving homicide,17 attempted murder and prostitution, which had higher percentages of guilty outcomes for females than males. Cases involving sexual assault, breach of probation and impaired driving saw similar outcomes of guilt for both male and female accused.

Probation most common sentence in adult court

Once an accused is found guilty, it is the responsibility of the judge to impose an appropriate sentence. When making this decision, the judge must consider a variety of factors, such as: the nature of the offence, the range of sentences possible in the Criminal Code or other statutes, deterring or preventing similar crimes, and the rehabilitation of the offender (Department of Justice Canada 2005b). Many cases result in a combination of sentences, for example a custodial sentence followed by a term of probation.

In general, probation, either on its own or in combination with another sentence, continued to be the most frequently imposed sentence for guilty cases in 2011/2012. Overall, the use of probation remained stable from 2010/2011 and was imposed in 45% of guilty cases (Table 5, Chart 6). A sentence of probation can be a maximum of three years (1,095 days) and requires the offender to remain in the community and to abide by a number of conditions (e.g., keep the peace, appear in court when required, or community service).18 In 2011/2012, the median length of a probation sentence was one year (365 days).

Chart 6 Guilty cases in adult criminal court, by type of sentence, Canada, 2011/2012

Description for chart 6

Probation sentences varied by province and territory in 2011/2012. Nunavut reported the highest use of probation with about 7 in 10 (69%) guilty cases receiving this type of sentence, either on its own or in combination with another sentence. Alberta reported the lowest use of probation with 1 in 5 (20%) guilty cases receiving probation.

Fines were another relatively common sentence imposed by adult criminal courts in 2011/2012. Nationally, fines were imposed in about 3 in 10 (29%) guilty cases, with the median amount being $800 (Table 5). Similar to the use of probation, the use of fines differed by province and territory. Fines were most frequently used in the Northwest Territories (59%) and Alberta (44%), and were imposed least often in Nunavut (11%) and Yukon (20%).

Most custody sentences less than 6 months

A sentence of custody requires offenders to be sent to a secure facility or prison for a certain period of time. In Canada, custodial sentences can either be provincial/territorial or federal. Provincial/territorial custody is for sentences that are a maximum of two years less a day, whereas federal custody is for sentences of two years or more.

Custody was the second most commonly imposed sentence in 2011/2012 with about one-third (35%) of guilty cases resulting in a custodial sentence (Table 5), a proportion that has remained relatively stable in recent years. Cases involving an outcome of guilt for being unlawfully at large saw the greatest likelihood of a custodial sentence (85%), followed closely by homicide (83%),19 attempted murder (80%) and robbery (80%).

The majority (86%) of custody sentences in 2011/2012 were for a term of six months or less.20 The remainder of cases were sentenced to a period greater than six months to two years less a day (10%) or two or more years (4%) (Chart 7).21

Chart 7 Guilty cases in adult criminal court, by length of custody sentence, Canada, 2011/2012

Description for chart 7

Custody imposed most often in Prince Edward Island

Similar to other types of sentences, the use of custody varied by province and territory. Prince Edward Island continued to report the most frequent use of custodial sentences, with custody being imposed in slightly more than two-thirds (67%) of guilty cases for 2011/2012. The use of custody in Prince Edward Island was close to double the national average (35%) and was more than double that of Newfoundland and Labrador (29%), Nova Scotia (27%), New Brunswick (27%), Saskatchewan (30%) and Nunavut (31%) where custody sentences were imposed least often (Chart 8).

Chart 8 Guilty cases in adult criminal court sentenced to custody, by province and territory, 2011/2012

Description for chart 8

The higher proportion of custodial sentences in Prince Edward Island can be partly explained by cases completed for impaired driving. Not only did impaired driving cases represent a higher proportion of guilty cases in Prince Edward Island than at the national level (29% versus 14%), but cases involving impaired driving were far more likely to receive a custodial sentence in Prince Edward Island than Canada as a whole (91% versus 9% for Canada) (Chart 9). In all other provinces and territories, fines were most frequently imposed for guilty cases of impaired driving. Nationally, the proportion of fines for guilty cases of impaired driving was 88%.22

Chart 9 Impaired driving cases sentenced to custody in adult criminal court, by province and territory, 2011/2012

Description for chart 9

Prince Edward Island also reported higher than average proportions of custody for other types of guilty cases. Although the number of cases completed in Prince Edward Island was relatively small compared to other provinces and territories, in 2011/2012, adult criminal courts in Prince Edward Island imposed a custodial sentence 100% of the time for guilty cases involving sexual assault, major assault and being unlawfully at large. Guilty cases for other drug offences also had a higher proportion of cases sentenced to custody in Prince Edward Island (94%) than Canada as a whole (40%).

While custody sentences are more often imposed in Prince Edward Island than in other provinces and territories, the length of custody sentences are generally short. As in previous years, the median sentence length in Prince Edward Island was the shortest in the country, at 15 days –  half the median length of custody for Canada as a whole (30 days) (Chart 10).

Chart 10 Median length of custody for guilty cases in adult criminal court, by province and territory, 2011/2012

Description for chart 10

Males sentenced to custody more frequently than females

The use of custody sentences was also found to differ for males and females. When looking at overall sentences by sex of the offender, custodial sentences were imposed in 37% of cases for male offenders versus 24% for female offenders.23 Some of the most notable differences were among guilty cases involving major assault, theft and break and enter (Chart 11).

There were some types of cases, such as those involving homicide24 and other sexual offences, where the proportion of females sentenced to custody was higher than the proportion of males. For cases involving sexual assault, prostitution and drug possession, the proportion of sentences to custody was about equal for both males and females.

Chart 11 Guilty cases in adult criminal court sentenced to custody, by selected offence, by sex, Canada, 2011/2012

Description for chart 11

Time taken to complete adult criminal court cases declines for third year in a row

Not only does the ICCS collect information on the number and types of cases completed in adult criminal courts, it also records the length of time taken to complete each case. In Canada, it is a fundamental right to be brought to trial in a timely manner.25 Although there is not a prescribed time limit in which a criminal court case must be completed, it is generally expected that cases conclude within an 8- to 10-month period.26

The median amount of time taken to complete an adult criminal court case continued to decline in 2011/2012, down 2 days from the previous year to 117 days (approximately 4 months) (Table 3). Although this represented the third consecutive annual decline, the median length of time to complete an adult criminal court case remained higher than 10 years ago (105 days in 2001/2002).27

As with other aspects of adult criminal courts, considerable variation exists among the provinces and territories regarding the median amount of time taken to complete a case. Consistent with the past 10 years,28 Prince Edward Island continued to report the shortest median length of time for case completion in 2011/2012 at 29 days, approximately four times shorter than the national median length (117 days) (Table 2, Chart 12).

Chart 12 Median length of cases completed in adult criminal court, by province and territory, 2011/2012

Description for chart 12

Variations in case completion time also existed depending on the type of case. Homicide cases29 had the longest median length at 386 days, followed by cases involving sexual assault (308 days) and other sexual offences (274 days). In 2011/2012, attempted murder cases saw the greatest decline in median length of case completion, down 44 days from the previous year (259 days in 2011/2012 versus 303 days in 2010/2011). Cases that involved two or more charges also continued to be lengthier than cases that involved one charge (147 days and 81 days, respectively).

Summary

The number of cases completed in adult criminal court in 2011/2012 declined 6% from the previous year. The decrease in completed cases was seen across almost all provinces and territories, and across almost all types of cases. Cases involving non-violent offences continued to be most common in adult criminal courts, representing about three-quarters (76%) of the completed caseload. As in previous years, cases involving impaired driving, theft, common assault and failure to comply with an order were most common.

The outcome of cases has remained relatively stable over the past decade, with approximately two-thirds (64%) of all cases ending in a finding of guilt in 2011/2012. Probation continued to be the most common sentence imposed for guilty cases (45%), followed by custodial sentences (35%) and fines (29%). The types of sentences, particularly custody, differed by province or territory, type of offence and sex of the accused person. The median length of time taken to complete a case in adult court declined for the third year in a row (117 days), but remained higher than it was a decade ago.

Survey description

The Integrated Criminal Court Survey (ICCS) is administered by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (Statistics Canada) in collaboration with provincial and territorial government departments responsible for criminal courts in Canada. The survey collects statistical information on adult and youth court cases involving Criminal Code and other federal statute offences. Data contained in this article represent the adult criminal court portion of the survey, namely, individuals who were 18 years of age or older at the time of the offence.

The primary unit of analysis is a case. A case is defined as one or more charges against an accused person or company that were processed by the courts at the same time and received a final decision. A case combines all charges against the same person having one or more key overlapping dates (date of offence, date of initiation, date of first appearance, date of decision, or date of sentencing) into a single case.

A case that has more than one charge is represented by the charge with the "most serious offence" (MSO). The most serious offence is selected using the following rules. First, court decisions are considered and the charge with the “most serious decision” (MSD) is selected. Court decisions for each charge in a case are ranked from most to least serious as follows: (1) guilty, (2) guilty of a lesser offence, (3) acquitted, (4) stay of proceeding, (5) withdrawn, dismissed or discharged, (6) not criminally responsible, (7) other, and (8) transfer of court jurisdiction.

Second, in cases where two or more charges result in the same MSD (e.g., guilty), Criminal Code sentences are considered. The charge with the most serious offence type is selected according to an offence seriousness scale, based on actual sentences handed down by courts in Canada.30 Each offence type is ranked by looking at (1) the proportion of guilty charges where custody was imposed and (2) the average (mean) length of custody for the specific type of offence. These values are multiplied together to arrive at the final seriousness ranking for each type of offence. If, after looking at the offence seriousness scale, two or more charges remain tied then information about the sentence type and duration of the sentence are considered (e.g., custody and length of custody, then probation and length of probation, etc.).

In 2011/2012, ICCS coverage reflects all cases completed in adult Canadian criminal courts with the exception of superior courts in Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well as municipal courts in Quebec. Information could not be extracted from these electronic reporting systems and was therefore unavailable.

The absence of data from superior courts in these five jurisdictions may have resulted in an underestimation of the severity of sentences since some of the most serious cases, which are likely to result in the most severe sentences, are processed in superior courts. There may also be an underestimation of case elapsed times as more serious cases generally require more court appearances and take more time to complete.

Cases are counted according to the fiscal year in which they are completed. Each year, the ICCS database is “frozen” at the end of March for the production of court statistics pertaining to the preceding fiscal year. However, these counts do not include cases that were pending an outcome at the end of the reference period. If a pending outcome is reached in the next fiscal year, then these cases are included in the completed case counts for that fiscal year. However, if a one-year period of inactivity elapses, then these cases are deemed complete and the originally published counts for the previous fiscal year are subsequently updated and reported in the next year’s release of the data. For example, upon the release of 2011/2012 data, the 2010/2011 data are updated with revisions for cases that were originally pending an outcome in 2010/2011 but have since been deemed complete due to a one-year period of inactivity. Data are revised once and are then permanently “frozen”. Historically, updates to a previous year’s numbers have resulted in an increase of about 2%.

Lastly, there are many factors that influence variations between jurisdictions. These may include Crown and police charging practices, the number, types and severity of offences, and various forms of diversion programs. Therefore, any comparisons between jurisdictions should be interpreted with caution.

Detailed data tables

Table 1 Charges and cases completed in adult criminal court, Canada, 2005/2006 to 2011/2012

Table 2 Cases completed in adult criminal court, by province and territory, 2010/2011 and 2011/2012

Table 3 Cases completed in adult criminal court, by type of offence, Canada, 2010/2011 and 2011/2012

Table 4 Cases completed in adult criminal court, by type of offence and decision, Canada, 2011/2012

Table 5 Guilty cases in adult criminal court, by type of offence and select sentence, Canada, 2011/2012

References

Brennan, Shannon. 2012. “Police-reported crime statistics in Canada, 2011.” Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X. (accessed January 18, 2013).

Dauvergne, Mia. 2013. “Youth court statistics in Canada, 2011/2012.” Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X.

Department of Justice Canada. 2005a. Canada’s Court System. Catalogue no. J2-128/2005. (accessed February 25, 2013).

Department of Justice Canada. 2005b. Canada’s System of Justice. Catalogue no. J2-23/2005. (accessed January 14, 2013).

Perreault, Samuel. 2013. “Impaired driving in Canada, 2011.” Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-X. (accessed January 22, 2013).

Verdun-Jones, Simon. 2012. “Plea bargaining.” Criminal Justice in Canada. 4th edition. Julian V. Roberts and Michelle G. Grossman (eds). Nelson Education Ltd. Toronto, Ontario.

Notes

  1. For information on youth court statistics in Canada, see Dauvergne 2013.
  2. For further information, see the Survey description section.
  3. It is expected that updates processed at a later date will result in an additional 2% in the number of cases for 2011/2012. See the Survey description for more information.
  4. In general, jurisdictions with smaller completed case counts tend to see more fluctuation in year-over-year percentage changes.
  5. Exclude cases involving companies and those in which the sex and/or age of the accused was unknown.
  6. Exclude cases involving companies and those in which the sex of the accused was unknown.
  7. Populations are calculated on a calendar year basis, whereas ICCS data are based on a fiscal calendar year. As a result, 2011 population data were used since the majority of ICCS data falls within this year.
  8. Exclude cases involving companies and those in which the age of the accused was unknown.
  9. See Note 7.
  10. See Note 8.
  11. Guilty findings include guilty of the offence, of an included offence, of an attempt of the offence, or of an attempt of an included offence. Also includes cases where an absolute or conditional discharge has been imposed.
  12. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the terms ‘acquittal’ and ‘dismissed’ are used interchangeably, resulting in an under-count of the number of acquittals in the province. In other provinces, the number of acquittals may be over-counted due to administrative practices.
  13. The comparison of data is based upon information from the following 10 jurisdictions that consistently reported data over the past 10 years: Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and Yukon.
  14. ‘Other types of decisions’ could include the accused being found not criminally responsible or unfit to stand trial.
  15. See Note 13.
  16. See Note 6.
  17. First and second degree murder cases are under the exclusive jurisdiction of superior courts. As such, information on these types of cases is missing from Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan where superior court data are unavailable.
  18. See Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46, s. 732.1, s. 732.2.
  19. See Note 17.
  20. Custodial sentence lengths exclude time spent in custody prior to sentencing and/or the amount of credit awarded for time spent in pre-sentence custody.
  21. Excludes cases in which the length of custody was unknown.
  22. For further information on Impaired Driving in Canada, see Perreault 2013.
  23. See Note 6.
  24. See Note 17.
  25. See Constitution Act, 1982. Part 1. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s. 11.
  26.  See R. v. Askov [1990], 2 S.C.R. 1199.
  27. See Note 13.
  28. See Note 13.
  29. See Note 17.
  30. The offence seriousness scale is calculated using data from both the adult and youth components of the Integrated Criminal Court Survey from 2002/2003 to 2006/2007.

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