The topics in the Dial-A-Law series provide only general information on legal issues within the Province of Alberta. The purpose of this topic is to inform you of your legal rights and responsibilities. This is not legal advice. If you require legal advice, you should contact a lawyer.
This topic discusses the effects of pleading guilty to a criminal offence. You should get legal advice from a lawyer before you plead guilty to a criminal charge.
Note: Always arrive at Court dressed appropriately. You want to show that your appearance and manners are respectful. Be well groomed and wear clean clothes. Speak politely to the members of the Court, the Judge, the Crown Prosecutor, and anyone else involved in your matter.
Process for Pleading Guilty
Before a criminal charge goes to trial, the Court will ask the accused how they plead. At this point, the accused person can plead or say “guilty” or “not guilty”. At the first Court appearance, the person does not need to plead guilty or not guilty. Generally, a person will enter a plea of not guilty when they are scheduling a trial date, or a plea of guilty on a date scheduled for a guilty plea and sentencing.
When it is time to take your plea, the clerk will read out the charge against the accused, and then will ask the accused “how do you plead?”. An accused can reserve or not state their plea for several Court appearances, as long as they are taking active steps to move their case along (i.e. working on hiring a lawyer, obtaining disclosure, etc).
Language: If your first language is not English, you have the right to a translator who speaks your language to help you understand what is said in Court. If you require the assistance of a translator, talk to a duty counsel before your matter is called out in court, so that arrangements can be made. It is important that you understand exactly what is happening with your matter.
If an accused person pleads guilty:
- They will be given a punishment or sentence for committing the criminal offence. A Judge may sentence them immediately after their plea or adjourn the sentencing to a later date.
- A Judge may order a Pre-Sentence Report. This Report provides information to the Court on the age of the accused, level of maturity, character, criminal record, behavior, attitude, and willingness to make amends. This report is prepared by a probation officer and will require the accused to meet with their probation officer to be interviewed.
Note: Before pleading guilty, it is recommended that the accused person request “disclosure” from the Crown Prosecutor’s office. A disclosure package contains the potential evidence that could be called at trial, including the evidence that the Crown can rely on to try to prove its case against the accused. This would include police notes and reports about the case, any statements provided to police by the accused and other witnesses, and photographs and video evidence. The accused is entitled to, and should, know the Crown’s case against them before they give up their right to a trial by pleading guilty. The disclosure package will help to know the evidence and determine whether the Crown could prove the charges at a trial.
If an accused pleads guilty, the Judge will confirm the following before accepting the guilty plea:
- That the accused is making the plea voluntarily, and they have not been forced or threatened to plead guilty.
- That the accused understands that by pleading guilty, they are admitting the essential elements of the offence that they are pleading guilty to.
- That the guilty plea will likely result in a conviction and a criminal record, and that the accused is giving up their right to a trial where the Crown would have to prove the charges against them beyond a reasonable doubt.
- That the judge is the one who makes the final decision on what the sentence will be. So even if the accused and the Crown Prosecutor had agreed on what the sentence should be, the judge can agree or not agree with this proposal; and
- That the facts support the charge that the accused is pleading guilty to.
Pleading “Not Guilty”
If an accused person pleads not guilty, a trial date or a preliminary inquiry date will be set. This date usually ranges from 2 to 6 months or more, from the date the accused enters their plea.
Note: An accused person can change their plea from “not guilty” to “guilty” after the trial date or preliminary inquiry date has been set. The accused must notify the Crown prosecutor and ask to have the matter brought forward in docket Court. A date for entering the guilty plea and determining sentencing will then be set.
Diversion Programs and Peace Bonds
Sometimes, the Crown will agree to “divert” the charges from the regular criminal justice system. Meaning they will be dealt with without entering a guilty or not guilty plea.
- The Alternative Measures Program (AMP) may be available to those charged with relatively minor offences and who do not have a criminal record. If the Crown agrees to send a charge to AMP, the accused can enter into the program if they accept responsibility for the actions that led to the charge. This will not mean the accused is pleading guilty. If the accused enters AMP and completes the program successfully, their charges will be withdrawn by the Crown Prosecutor. Tasks in AMP may include volunteering, counselling, and donating.
- Mental health diversion (MHD) may be available where the charges are a result of a diagnosed mental disorder. There may be other programs available, depending on the location of the charges and what is offered in the area.
- Peace Bond: A peace bond may be offered where the accused can acknowledge that the alleged victim has reason to fear him or her. In entering into a peace bond, the accused enters a recognizance or court order to keep the peace for a specific amount of time. It may include other conditions, such as to not contact the alleged victim and not go anywhere that they may be. There are criminal consequences for breaching those conditions. However, the Crown will sometimes agree to a Peace Bond and then withdraw the criminal charge.
Note: Before pleading guilty, it is recommended that the accused should speak with a duty counsel to see whether any alternative measure discussed above is available to the accused.
After a person pleads guilty or is found guilty of a criminal offence, they are given a punishment or sentence. The sentence can be any or a combination of the following:
- A discharge with or without conditions (leading to no criminal record).
- A fine,
- Jail sentence,
- Probation or restitution.
(You may wish to listen to the Dial-A-Law topic on Criminal Sentences for more information)
Procedure: The sentence is given to the person at a “sentencing hearing”. At the sentencing hearing:
- The Judge will ask the person if they confirm the details of the offence read by the Crown Prosecutor.
- If the Judge accepts the guilty plea, the Court will allow the person (or their defense counsel) and the Crown Prosecutor to speak-to-sentence. The Crown Prosecutor will inform the Judge about the person’s criminal record (if they have one) and the seriousness of the offence and suggest a specific sentence.
- Once the Crown Prosecutor has spoken, the person (or their defense lawyer) will be given an opportunity to speak-to-sentence. The person may want to provide the court with information about themselves including their age, where they live, how long they have lived there, their education, whether they are married and have children, their community involvement, how they feel about the offence, where they work, and how much money they earn. It is important to tell the Judge anything that they feel is important to consider before determining their sentence, including any steps that they have taken to better themselves since the offence date, such as taking counselling or abstaining from substances that contributed to the offence.
- The Judge will consider any aggravating or mitigating factors of the offence. Aggravating factors are those that may increase the sentence, such as the seriousness of the offence, the gravity of the offence, the victim’s impact statement and the person`s attitude. Mitigating factors may reduce the sentence, such as remorse or participation in rehab programs. An early guilty plea is considered a mitigating factor, as it indicates remorse and saves costs for witnesses and Court resources. The Judge may also consider a Pre-Sentence Report. After considering all factors of the case, the Judge will impose a sentence.
- Sometimes the Court will ask if the victims or anyone close in relationship to a victim has a Victim Impact Statements. If yes, then the judge will ask that the statement be read aloud in court to describe the impact of the crime on them.
After sentencing, the person will be ordered to pay a victim surcharge. The surcharge will be 30% of any fine imposed on sentence, or where no fine is imposed, $100 per charge where the offences were prosecuted by summary conviction, and $200 per charge where the offence is punishable by indictment.
An accused person can ask the judge to not order the victim fine surcharge, or to reduce the amount, on the basis that it would cause “undue hardship” as financial circumstances of the accused makes it difficult for them. Financial hardship could be from homelessness, unemployment, or support of dependents.
An accused person can also ask the judge not to order the victim fine surcharge, or to reduce the amount, on the basis that the surcharge would be disproportionate to the offence or to the accused’s degree of responsibility.
Note: This surcharge must be paid and cannot be “worked off”.
Dial-A-Law is a Calgary Legal Guidance public service project funded in part by the Alberta Law Foundation.