Write-up Expert Roundtable on R v Morris: Accounting for Anti-Black Racism in Criminal Sentencing


On November 19, 2021, the Nathanson Centre hosted a virtual Expert Roundtable on R v Morris: Accounting for Anti-Black Racism in Criminal Sentencing. The event brought together four experts to discuss R v Morris, a highly anticipated decision that was released by a five-justice panel of the Court of Appeal for Ontario in October 2021. Morris addressed the issue of how trial judges should account for systemic anti-Black racism when sentencing Black offenders, including through the use of “enhanced pre-sentence reports” that document the impacts of anti-Black racism.
Over 100 participants attended the expert roundtable. The audience included JD students, graduate students, and law professors from multiple faculties, as well as practicing lawyers and at least one sitting judge.
Prof. Sonia Lawrence, Associate Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and Nathanson Centre affiliate, moderated a conversation with four speakers:
• Prof. Carl James, Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community & Diaspora, York Faculty of Education. Prof. James’ areas of expertise include the intersectionality of race with ethnicity, gender, class, and citizenship, and the ways in which educational and employment
opportunities account for the lived experiences of marginalized community members. Prof. James co-authored one of the enhanced pre-sentence reports used in Morris.
• Prof. Danardo Jones, Assistant Professor, Windsor Faculty of Law. Prof. Jones researches in the areas of criminal law and procedure, sentencing, and race and the law. He is the former Director of Legal Services for the African Canadian Legal Clinic and has practiced as a defence lawyer with legal aid clinics in Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia. Prof. Jones researches enhanced pre-sentence reports.
• Prof. Lisa Kerr, Assistant Professor & Director of the Criminal Law Group, Queen’s Law. Professor Kerr’s research spans criminal law, sentencing policy, punishment theory, and prisoner rights. She also does extensive pro bono litigation work, including with the Queen’s Prison Law Clinic and the BC Civil Liberties Association. Prof. Kerr is undertaking SSHRC-funded research on race and sentencing law.
• Prof. Faisal Mirza, partner at Mirza Kwok & Adjunct Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. Prof. Mirza is a highly experienced criminal trial and appeal lawyer. Among his many professional and public advocacy contributions, Prof. Mirza co-founded the Sentencing and Parole Project, a non-profit organization that prepares enhanced pre-sentence reports, and he represented Mr. Morris at trial and on appeal.
The four experts offered a succinct summary of the main holdings from R v Morris, an “insider” account of how the specialized pre-sentence reports at issue in that case were prepared, and an explanation of how those types of reports were first developed in Nova Scotia and have become increasingly common across Canada. The audience also heard thoughtful, critically engaged analyses of the Court of Appeal’s reasoning in Morris. Much of the discussion focused on the decisions’ potential, and its limitations, in terms of addressing pervasive anti-Black racism in the Canadian criminal justice system. The speakers offered nuanced, compelling, vital reflections on the material realities of anti-Black racism, both on a systemic level and at the level of individual lived experience. The speakers underscored the importance of legal education in ensuring that all criminal justice system actors appreciate the historical and contemporary dynamics of anti-Black racism in Canada, including how it is operationalized and exacerbated by criminal justice practices including criminal sentencing.
The Nathanson Centre is grateful to Prof. Lawrence for her deft and gracious moderation, to Profs. James, Jones, Kerr and Mirza for their deeply thoughtful commentary, and to the audience for their keen engagement.
The Expert Roundtable on R v Morris was organized by Nathason Centre affiliates Profs. Palma Paciocco and Sonia Lawrence, with support from Prof. Barnali Choudhury, Director of the Nathanson Centre, and Lielle Gonsalves, Research Centre Coordinator.