A British Columbia court has dealt a temporary setback to the federal government's tough-on-crime agenda.
The BC Appeal Court ruled Friday that some prisoners are still eligible for parole after serving just one-sixth of their sentence, despite a law that changed that time limit last year.
The federal government abolished the accelerated parole review effective March 2011, and it was made retroactive to offenders who were already serving their sentences.
Previous legislation allowed so-called white collar criminals to apply for parole when just one-sixth of their sentence had been served because the National Parole Board was satisfied they weren't likely to commit violent crimes.
Some of those offenders challenged the section where the new law was retroactive.
In an earlier court ruling, the BC Supreme Court agreed with the convicts, ruling that delaying their parole eligibility is essentially a second punishment.
The federal government appealed, arguing the changes would restore public confidence in the justice system and would reflect the actual sentences the court imposed.
The three-member BC Appeal Court panel rejected all the government arguments.
The sentencing management objectives are important, "but they do not rise to such significance that justifies implementing them in a manner that deprives the respondents of their constitutional rights," Justice Risa Levine said in a written ruling.
"The retrospective legislation lengthening of the time spent in jail by the respondents by delaying their eligibility for parole violates their rights not to be 'punished again' for their offences," Levine said.
A federal government spokesperson was unavailable for comment on the case.
Evidence presented during the hearing showed that about 118 people were affected by the law, but that number was greatly reduced by this September to just 39 offenders in prison.
Judith Slobbe, a plaintiff in the case, pleaded guilty to more than a dozen counts of fraud, theft, forgery and perjury and was sentenced to just under eight years in prison.
Slobbe admitted to robbing from seniors she'd befriended between 2006 and 2009.
John Conroy, legal counsel for the Canadian Prison Law Association, an intervener in the case, said Slobbe is already out on parole after passing her full parole date.
Conroy expected the decision to have an impact on so-called white collar criminals across the country.
He said the law could apply to about 600 prisoners in other provinces and territories.
"It's an actual order against the federal minister of justice, so surely he's bound by it," Conroy said.
"The government could apply it across the country ... but they're not."
Conroy said he expects to see an appeal from Ottawa soon.
"We'll have to get a decision from the Supreme Court of Canada before it applies across the country if the minister doesn't direct them to follow this."
He said many of the convicts are timing out on their early parole eligibility, and he believes that's why the government is refusing to leave the court decision alone.
While the court case applies only to people sentenced before the law was enacted, Conroy said there's a whole other "huge" group who committed crimes before the change and received stricter sentences.
He said that could be a much larger constitutional argument against the federal government.
"We're absolutely convinced (the federal government) only did this in order to get Earl Jones," he added.
Jones, a Montreal investment adviser, stole millions from investors in a decades-long ponzi scheme and was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Conroy noted that Jones was sentenced before the legislation was changed.
He said the government should allow offenders to get out of prison and work towards making restitution orders to their victims, instead of keeping them behind bars at a cost of at least $80,000 a year.