Can parole be the right sentence for sexual assault? Quebec jurists intervene

Warning: This story contains disturbing details of sexual assault. A list of resources for people who have experienced sexual violence appears at the end of the article.

A chorus of outrage from victims’ rights groups, politicians and other Quebecers has crescendoed this week, following a Quebec Court judge’s decision to grant parole to a man who pleaded guilty to sexual assault and voyeurism.

Judge Matthieu Poliquin made the decision last month, after Simon Houle, an engineer from Trois-Rivières, admitted to having sexually assaulted a woman in 2019 and, according to the judgment, to having taken photos of her « private parts » during that she was sleeping.

In her ruling, Poliquin said a criminal record would have a « significant impact » on Houle’s career, leading many sexual assault victim advocates to say the sentence minimizes the seriousness of the sexual assault. and could contribute to making victims reluctant to come forward. their own complaints.

A parole means that Houle will not have a criminal record if he meets a series of conditions during a period of probation, in this case three months.

Some legal experts are now questioning the weight of certain factors, such as a person’s professional status, in influencing a sentence and whether parole can ever be the right decision in a sexual assault case.

Too lenient a message?

In his decision, the judge described how the victim, asleep at a party, was « woken up by the light of a camera. She felt fingers in her vagina move back and forth ». Her camisole was pulled up and her bra unfastened from the front.

A few days later, a friend of the perpetrator who was aware of the event looked into Houle’s phone. « He then found, in the bin of the device, photos of a woman’s private parts, » said the judge.

Rachel Chagnon, professor in the Department of Legal Sciences at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM), explains that the role of a judge is to determine the most appropriate sentence for the individual case before him, taking into account the circumstances. aggravating and mitigating. The factors.

« If the accused planned the crime, it is an aggravating circumstance. If the accused regrets his actions, it is a mitigating circumstance, » she said.

UQAM Legal Sciences Professor Rachel Chagnon wonders if Judge Mathieu Poliquin placed too much emphasis on Houle’s personal life in his sentencing decision. (Radio-Canada)

She said that in this case, the judge concluded that there were more mitigating factors than aggravating factors, thus opting for a lighter sentence. However, Chagnon questions the message that parole for sexual assault sends to the public.

In sentencing, « the appearance of justice is as important as the justice itself in ensuring public confidence in the system, » she said.

« In a world where we recognize that historically we haven’t been tough enough, that we haven’t sent a clear enough message about the seriousness of sexual assault, is a phrase that appears in relatively lenient first sight sends the message we want to send? » asked Chagnon, in an interview on the Radio-Canada program lunch info.

Not a popular decision, but fair: criminal lawyer

In his ruling, the judge said Houle « greatly regrets his actions » and that the repercussions of a criminal record « would have particularly negative and disproportionate consequences for him », in part because it would be difficult for him to move around. for his work as an engineer.

Poliquin noted that Houle also went to therapy, and he admitted to sexually assaulting another woman in 2015. This admission, while « disturbing », according to Poliquin, also demonstrated his « desire for transparency » and the serious approach de Houle in terms of rehabilitation.

Close-up of a man with a neat beard and goatee wearing a suit and bow tie.
Simon Houle, who pleaded guilty to sexual assault and voyeurism, was granted a conditional discharge after a judge ruled a criminal record would disproportionately affect his career as an engineer. (Simon Houle/Facebook)

In making his decision, Chagnon said the judge placed considerable weight on the abuser’s particular reality.

« It raises the question of whether we leave too much room for subjectivity in terms of the sympathy that we can have for the aggressor, if we do not put too much emphasis on these elements. »

However, Eric Sutton, a criminal defense attorney in Montreal, said elements of Houle’s personal life are all relevant considerations that cannot be ignored.

« I think we as a community would appreciate someone who pleads guilty, shows remorse…has gone to therapy, is well educated [and] wants to pursue a career as a professional,” Sutton said.

eric sutton defence lawyer
Defense lawyer Eric Sutton, seen here, said it is not a judge’s responsibility to teach or reassure the public, but to make the right decision based on the facts presented in the case . (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

While the majority of people would agree that sexual assault is a very serious crime, according to Sutton, « that doesn’t mean that under any circumstances someone can’t get a discharge. » He pointed out that such rulings are becoming less and less common in sexual assault cases in Canadian law.

Sutton said that while typically a person guilty of sexual assault would end up with a conviction, in his view a discharge was warranted in this particular case.

« [The judge] explains their reasoning process; he applies the right principles, and I think it’s a very strong decision. It may not be popular, but I think it’s really fair. »

Appeal routes

Unlike Chagnon, Sutton does not believe it is a judge’s responsibility to teach or reassure the public. He said it is a judge’s responsibility to make the right decision based on the facts before him.

The office of the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions of Quebec (DPCP) has announced that it will appeal Houle’s sentence in the coming weeks.

Sutton says he agrees with critics who say Houle’s admission to sexually assaulting another woman four years earlier should have been « a concern » for the judge in this case, but he doesn’t know. not whether that alone will be enough for a higher court to overturn Poliquin’s decision, resulting in a conviction.

The length of the assault, which Poliquin said happened « on the whole, quickly, » could also be something a judge hearing an appeal would find unworthy consideration, Sutton said.

Cassandra Richards, a criminal lawyer and sexual violence researcher at McGill University, said the outcry over Houle’s case underscores the conflict in society over how best to hold people accountable for crimes of sexual violence.

« On the one hand, we have a movement that wants crimes of sexual violence to be taken seriously because they have not been taken seriously for too long. And then on the other, we have a movement that pushes for an alternative to prisons, which recognizes that prisons do not always keep our communities safe,” she said.

« I think the question is, can parole take into consideration the seriousness of the sexual assault? And I think for some people that can, [for] some people can’t. »

There are resources and supports available for anyone who has experienced sexual violence:


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