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Similar sentences for similar offenders 

Lyle Howe receives three-year sentence for sexual assault.

As a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge sentenced Lyle Howe to three years in a federal prison for sexual assault last week, one of the former lawyer's supporters called out, "It's a sad day for justice."

Howe's lawyer and the Crown jointly recommended the three-year sentence, and justice Joseph Kennedy agreed. Additionally Howe's DNA will be collected and his name will appear on a sex-offender registry, the judge ordered.

On May 31, a jury found Howe guilty of sexual assault but cleared him on a charge of administering a noxious substance. The verdict spurred a multiracial protest of about 75 people who believed racism played a role in Howe's case. A smaller group of supporters attended his sentencing.

Social worker Robert Wright says Howe's sentence is too harsh. Every step in the judicial process is influenced by race, he explains, so cases like this one must be viewed through a racial lens.

Wright says the mostly white legal system views black men as more dangerous and less able to rehabilitate than white men. He questions whether the courts would have given a promising white lawyer as much jail time as a troublemaking black lawyer like Howe. "I've got to say, I don't think the white lawyer would have been sentenced the same way."

Other than the question of consent, much of the trial evidence was un-contradicted, justice Kennedy said. Howe testified he had oral, anal and vaginal sex with the victim and that she consented.

The victim said that last part wasn't true. The jury believed her, finding she did not consent. Howe knew she was not consenting, "and that is sexual assault," Kennedy said.

Sentences must be similar to those for similar offenders in similar circumstances, and generally a case like this wouldn't attract less than two years in prison. The Crown cited similar cases with sentences up to five years. Howe's lawyer, Phil Star, said he agreed to the three-year recommendation to save his client from serving a longer term.

Kennedy agreed with the Crown that an aggravating factor in the case was Howe's use of his position as a lawyer to gain the victim's trust. She believed he wouldn't do anything to jeopardize his career, the judge said. "Well it turned out that he would and he did." On the other hand, he said, Howe had no criminal record and had already been suspended as a lawyer.

Wright believes judges should start asking for "impact of race and culture assessments"—reports on how the African Nova Scotian experience may have influenced a person's involvement with crime. He has already provided a couple of these reports to judges in Nova Scotia, though, he says, "it will take a judge who already has some degree of racial analysis to order such a thing."

According to the mayor's 2014 roundtable on violence report, people of African descent are overrepresented in charges in HRM, in remand and sentenced incarceration status at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, in the five Correctional Services Canada Atlantic prisons and in the provincial youth prison at Waterville. "The over-representation exceeded the basic demographic standard minimally by a factor of four," the report states, and has not diminished since the 2008 roundtable on violence. —Hilary Beaumont

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