Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
May 10, 2005
Courts Take Intimate Partner Homicide More Seriously Now, Study Finds
People accused of killing their partners were treated more leniently in the 1970s compared with defendants in other types of homicides, but the courts have toughened up over the years when responding to intimate violence, a University of Guelph professor has found.
Sociologist Myrna Dawson’s findings are detailed in a new report completed for the Department of Justice Canada. The study, “Criminal Justice Outcomes in Intimate and Non-Intimate Partner Homicide Cases,” was published this week.
After people protested the 10-year sentence given to Fred Sheppard in Prince Edward Island for killing his common-law partner in 2000, Department of Justice Canada asked Dawson to look at the issue of intimate crimes in a broader sense by examining trends over time.
She studied all known Toronto homicides resolved through the courts from 1974 to 2002 to determine if people accused of killing a current or former spouse or a common-law or dating partner receive different treatment in the criminal justice system than those accused of killing victims who weren’t intimate partners. During the study period, 20 per cent of the 1,137 people accused of homicide were charged with killing an intimate partner.
The study compared cases that were similar. “For example, it isn’t fair to compare a case where an offender has seven charges involving violence with a case where a man has abused his wife but has no prior convictions,” said Dawson. “I’ve controlled for such background factors in this report.” She also separated the data into two time periods – 1974 to 1983 and 1984 to 2002 – to determine if the role of intimacy in criminal law has changed over time.
Dawson found that, during the mid to late 1970s and early 1980s, people accused of killing intimate partners were less likely to be convicted of first- or second-degree murder than were those who killed non-intimate partners. This was not the case in the later period. In addition, from 1984 on, people accused of killing intimate partners were more likely to be found guilty at trial than were those accused of other types of homicide.
“The movement to fight violence against women certainly served as the impetus for change in dealing with these crimes in the criminal justice system,” said Dawson. As a result of lobbying, the government introduced mandatory charging in the early ‘80s. In 1996, it also amended the Criminal Code so that a spousal or parental relationship between a victim and offender can be considered an aggravating factor at sentencing.
“Although I don’t think the work is finished, all these things have arguably had an impact on both the professional attitude towards these crimes and the public,” she said.