The Impact of Sentencing and Other Judicial Decisions on the Children of Parents in Conflict with the Law: Implications for Sentencing Reform

The situation of children whose parents are involved in adult criminal proceedings is emerging as a pressing public policy concern. There is a growing body of empirical evidence recognizing the adverse effects for dependent children both as direct and indirect victims of their parents’ criminal behaviour and in relation to criminal justice decisions about their parents, especially when a court is remanding or sentencing a parent who is a primary or sole caregiver to custody. At the same time, the empirical research shows that both formal and informal support and interventions can mitigate the negative effects of such an adverse experience on children, especially when activated early in the criminal justice decision-making process. In this report, we highlight the growing influence of an evolving international legal standard establishing a yet to be fully defined requirement for criminal courts to systematically recognize and consider the best interests of a child when sentencing a parent or a legal guardian as a specific and independent legal consideration in order to mitigate foreseeable and avoidable harms to the child. We also examine how selected, mainly common law, countries, including Canada, are interpreting and applying this standard in their domestic policy and laws and review some of the innovative child and family focused criminal justice practices that are being adopted in various jurisdictions. Finally, we briefly discuss the implications of these various developments for sentencing reform in Canada and point to some opportunities for Canadian legal and institutional reforms to move forward on this important child and family rights issue.

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