Instrumental Rationality and General Deterrence


  • Colton Fehr



The Supreme Court of Canada concluded in R. v. Nur that the use of general deterrence in sentencing is not “rationally connected”to its objective of lowering crime levels. Although this conclusion was drawn in the Charter section 1 context, its logic applies with equal force at the section 7 stage of analysis. As a law bearing no rational connection to its purpose is arbitrary, the author contends that judicial reliance on general deterrence in sentencing runs afoul of section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This conclusion is significant not only because it would forestall judicial use of general deterrence, but also for what it reveals about the relationship between the instrumental rationality principles. Commentators maintain that the Supreme Court’s “individualistic” approach to instrumental rationality resulted in the arbitrariness principle becoming subsumed by overbreadth. Yet, challenging the general deterrence provisions with overbreadth is not possible given the discretion given to judges to avoid its unnecessary application. The fact that a law can be arbitrary but not overbroad provides support for the Supreme Court’s insistence upon keeping the principles distinct. It also, however, requires that the Supreme Court adjust its position with respect to its method for proving arbitrariness.