Canada and the United States both have comprehensive criminal codes, with sophisticated law enforcement agencies and powerful prosecutorial offices to punish violations of their respective laws.
Offences in Canada
In Canada, the federal Criminal Code applies uniformly throughout the nation.
Generally speaking, the most serious crimes are classified as straight indictable offences. These include murder, manslaughter, treason, and aggravated sexual assault. The penalty for these crimes can include up to life imprisonment.
Summary Conviction Offences
Less severe crimes are straight summary conviction offences, such as simple assault, soliciting prostitution, and trespassing at night. The penalty for a summary conviction is less than two years in jail.
Hybrid offences comprise the vast majority of Criminal Code offences. These crimes, such as sexual assault, may be charged as either indictable offences or a summary conviction offences. The choice is at the discretion of the crown prosecutor. In making their decision, the crown prosecutor will often consider the circumstances and the relative seriousness of the alleged offence as well as the criminal record (if any) of the accused.
Parole is a supervised release from prison. It is available to most offenders after they have served a prescribed period of time in prison. For example, a person convicted of first-degree murder must wait 25 years to apply for parole, which is not automatic. In most cases however, parole is automatic after an offender has served part of their sentence.
A person who obtains a record suspension has the records related to their conviction and punishment “suspended” from federal databases. Criminal record checks of their name will come back clear. However, the person’s criminal record can be “revived” if they are convicted of a further offence at a later date.
The law is very complicated as to who and when someone may apply for a record suspension. Generally, but subject to numerous exceptions, a person convicted of an indictable offence must wait ten years after completing their sentence to apply. Those convicted of most summary conviction offences must wait five years after completing their sentence. Some convictions, such as sexual offences involving a minor, or where a person receives a life sentence, are not available for a record suspension.
When considering whether to grant a record suspension, the parole board factors in the applicant’s good behaviour, prospects for rehabilitation in society, and whether the record suspension would bring the administration of justice into disrepute.
Common Questions about Offences in Canada
What is a felony in Canada?
The term is not used in the Canadian criminal justice system. An indictable offence is a helpful comparison.
What is a misdemeanour in Canada?
This term is not used either. However, a summary conviction offence is comparable.
Offences in the United States
The criminal justice system is more complicated in the United States because each state has its own comprehensive penal code. There is also the federal code, which generally applies to crimes under federal jurisdiction, such as treason or interstate fraud, and to all types of crimes committed on federal property.
The summary here will focus on federal criminal law provisions, but state law will be discussed when there is an absence of a federal provision.
Felonies in Federal Law
Felonies are serious crimes, with a complicated hierarchy of prison terms and fines.
What is a Felony Charge?
Crimes charged as felonies include treason, murder, and sedition. Felonies carry lengthy prison terms and fines of up to $250,000. There are five classes of felonies, divided according to prison sentence length, as follows:
- Class A. This is a felony conviction where the convicted person serves a life sentence or is sentenced to death.
- Class B. The convicted person serves twenty-five years or more.
- Class C. This felony carries a prison sentence of less than twenty-five years but ten or more years.
- Class D. This felony carries a prison sentence of less than ten years but five or more years.
- Class E. The convicted person serves less than five years but more than one year.
Misdemeanours vs. Felonies
Misdemeanour charges are less severe crimes, like simple assault, some forms of bribery, and many types of theft.
There are various classes of misdemeanours, with prison sentences ranging from five days to less than one year. Fines range from $5,000 to $250,000.
Infractions in Federal Law
Infractions are minor crimes, like most traffic violations. They are punishable by five days or less in prison and/or a fine of not more than $5,000.
Wobblers in the United States
Wobblers are crimes that can be charged either as a felony or a misdemeanour. Federal criminal law has no provisions for wobblers. Most states, however, do. While the law of wobblers is not uniform, California’s provisions (outlined below) are representative of how wobblers work in state criminal justice systems.
Common Types of Wobblers
Crimes that can be wobblers include sexual battery, burglary, stalking, forgery, and spousal battery. Wobblers are not automatically reduced to misdemeanours. Instead, the prosecutor may consider these factors:
- The defendant’s age, prior record, and severity of the crime;
- The defendant’s cooperation with law enforcement; and/or
- The strength of the prosecution’s case.
Parole in the United States
Parole does not exist in the federal criminal justice system. Parole is prevalent in state systems, but the details vary widely.
Expungement in the United States
Expungement is not available for federal convictions. Most states offer the opportunity for expungement, but the laws vary markedly.
*NOTE: Canadians who receive record suspensions must be careful to obtain advice from an immigration lawyer before traveling to the United States, since the US Federal Justice System does not recognize such mechanisms.
Canada and the United States Compared
Despite differences in terminology, the types of criminal offences are comparable in both countries. Indictable offences and felonies are similar. Summary convictions and misdemeanours/infractions are also generally alike. Hybrid offences are called wobblers in the United States.
Both Canada and most American states allow procedures for parole and record suspensions.
Other Points of Comparison
The recent crime rate in the United States is 47.70. This is higher than Canada’s rate of 40.64. Though there is no single reason to explain the difference, one possible explanation is the wider legality of guns in the United States.
Perhaps the most important difference between Canada and the United States is the death penalty. The death penalty was abolished in Canada in 1976, but it remains in effect in the United States, one of only 14 countries in the world to still allow this most extreme punishment.