Professor Sylvia Rich explores proportionality and unjustified harm in sentencing

Faculty of Law - Common Law Section
Research and innovation

By Common Law

Communication, Faculty of Law

Sylvia Rich
How do we know if the length of a prison sentence is just or unjust? How much punishment is justifiable for a serious crime, and how much for a relatively minor crime? How do we justify any prison sentences at all?

Professor Sylvia Rich sees a gap in the existing theoretical literature on punishment; she is embarking on a new project to help answer these fundamental questions.

Proportionality is the principle of punishing offenders only in proportion to their culpability and the seriousness of their crimes. Judges often determine proportionality in a sentence by comparing it to other sentences for offenders who committed similar offences. But anchoring points are needed so that judges have a baseline against which to compare the severity of the sentences they hand down. This absolute standard is known as cardinal proportionality. But while cardinal proportionality is treated as “absolute”, it has been understood to be based on the political and cultural values of a given society, suggesting that the anchoring points that guide sentencing are not absolute at all.

Professor Rich has received an Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for a project entitled “Proportionality and Unjustified Harm in Sentencing”. She aims to clarify the methodology for finding proportionality in sentencing and look at how proportionality is applied in Canadian sentencing law. She will also suggest ways for judges to use a more coherent methodology to determine proportionate sentences. This work will fill a gap in the theoretical literature on punishment and will provide crucial insights for the legal community on how to interpret the requirement for proportionality in sentencing. This project will employ a decarceral lens to analyzing proportionality in sentencing.

SSHRC Insight Development Grants aim to enable the development of new research questions, as well as experimentation with new methods, theoretical approaches and ideas.

Congratulations to Professor Rich on this funding success!