Most people, particularly those who have watched American criminal justice television shows, realize that there are different categories of criminal charges. What eludes many, however, is that there are significant terminological and procedural differences between the American and Canadian criminal justice systems. 

In this blog, we will unpack some of these differences to help you gain a better understanding of how criminal charges are categorized in Canada and explain the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor.

Definitions and Basic Differences

In Canada, criminal law is grounded in common law principles and codified in the Criminal Code of Canada (consult our Criminal Law beginner’s guide to learn more about the workings of the Criminal Code and the court system in Canada). This federal jurisdiction was created to provide a uniform approach to criminal law across all provinces, however, Quebec’s legal system is based on civil law influences, making it distinct within the broader Canadian context.

Conversely, in the United States, criminal law varies significantly between states, each with its own criminal code. For criminal matters, federal law operates alongside state law, and there are considerable statutory variations across different states.

Felony vs Misdemeanor: A Question of Severity

Both the U.S. and Canadian systems classify crimes based on severity, but the terminology and specific legal processes differ. “Felony” and “misdemeanor” are terms used in the American system. In the Canadian system, the terms “indictable offence” and “summary offence” fall along similar lines.

Procedural Differences

In the United States, a grand jury determines if there is enough evidence for a felony trial, with bail and plea bargaining playing significant roles. In Canada, indictable offences may require a preliminary inquiry to establish sufficient evidence, while summary offences undergo an expedited process with fewer pre-trial steps. 

The court systems further underscore these procedural differences. In the U.S., felony charges are tried in higher courts, whereas misdemeanors are handled by lower courts. Conversely, in Canada, indictable offences can be tried in Provincial or Supreme Courts at the choice of the accused, while summary offences are handled in Provincial Courts.

Felony (U.S.) vs. Indictable Offence (Canada)

In the United States, the federal government defines a felony as a serious crime punishable by more than one year of imprisonment. A felony conviction can lead to a lengthy jail sentence and other long-term consequences, up to life imprisonment or the death sentence in certain jurisdictions. Felony crimes are further categorized into different classes or degrees, each specifying the gravity of the crime and the corresponding severity of the punishment. Examples of serious felonies include murder, rape, armed robbery, aggravated assault, drug trafficking, and arson. 

Similarly, in Canada, indictable offences are serious criminal charges that require a formal indictment. These offences are comparable to U.S. felonies in terms of severity and legal ramifications. In Canada, examples of indictable offences include aggravated assault, drug trafficking, fraud, robbery, and sexual assault.

Misdemeanor (U.S.) vs. Summary Offence (Canada)

Misdemeanors in the United States are less severe crimes. A misdemeanor conviction carries lighter penalties than felonies, but they can still lead to criminal records, fines, and other legal consequences. Common examples of misdemeanors include petty theft, disorderly conduct, and other nonviolent crimes. 

In Canada, summary offences are minor criminal charges handled quickly and with simpler legal processes. These offences carry lesser penalties compared to indictable offences such as a often a maximum jail sentence of two years, though they still impact the individuals charged. Examples of summary offences include public disturbance and simple assault. These offences are usually resolved through fines, shorter jail terms, or community service.

Legal Consequences and Sentencing

Indictable Offences

Sentencing: Indictable offences in Canada involve lengthy prison sentences, heavy fines, and other severe penalties. The severity of the sentence depends on the nature of the crime, the circumstances surrounding it, and the offender’s criminal history.

Long-term Consequences: Individuals convicted of indictable offences may face long-term consequences, such as impacts to their ability to travel and secure employment in certain sectors.  These convictions remain on criminal records, which can affect various aspects of an individual’s life long after they have served their sentence.

Summary Offences

Sentencing Guidelines: Summary offences typically involve shorter jail terms, smaller fines, and sometimes community service. The penalties are designed to be proportionate to the less severe nature of these crimes.

Long-term Consequences: While the impact of summary offence convictions is less severe than that of indictable offences, they can still affect an individual’s future opportunities. These convictions may show up on criminal records, potentially influencing job prospects and other aspects of life.

Expungement & Record Sealing

In Canada, expungement and record sealing options are primarily managed through record suspensions, formerly known as pardons. 

A record suspension allows individuals who have completed their sentences and demonstrated good conduct to have their criminal records kept separate from other criminal records, mitigating the negative impacts of a criminal record on employment, travel, and other areas of life. 

Applications are processed by the Parole Board of Canada, and eligibility criteria include a waiting period after sentence completion and proof of good behavior.

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