Omnibus crime bill creating a storm
As it speeds through Parliament, the federal government's omnibus crime bill C-10 is gathering a storm of critics across Canada and even in the United States.
Covering nine bills that failed to pass during the last minority government, Bill C-10 – the Safe Streets and Communities Act – enacts the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act and amends acts that involve drug trafficking, paroles and pardons and young offenders, as well as immigrants and refugees.
“The whole legislation is completely outrageous,” said Orangeville criminal lawyer Carrie Bellan. “It’s completely punitive. There is really nothing there that addresses the social issues that cause crime.”
But Dufferin-Caledon MP David Tilson said the new measures are what most Canadians are looking for. “If I was a defence lawyer, I wouldn’t like this legislation, either. It makes it tougher for the bad guys. I believe the majority wants these laws. They have grave concerns.”
Dufferin-Caledon federal Green candidate and party finance critic Ard Van Leeuwen disagrees.
“This government is ignoring opinions from our judiciary, law enforcement and criminologists,” he said. “It’s even ignoring our own Department of Justice that studied the matter in 2002. The preponderance of their assessments is that C-10-style legislation is a step in the wrong direction.”
Ms. Bellan sees the legislation’s mandatory sentencing measures as sacrificing judicial discretion.
“With mandatory minimums, the likelihood of resolving things is lessened and when you can’t resolve, it will have to go to trial.
“You will end up with more trials, and that hampers everyone, including defence lawyers, crown attorneys and judges.”
Mr. Tilson conceded that where mandatory minimums apply, a judge’s range of authority is not as great. “Some is lost,” he said, “but they still have some discretion.”
For example, al- though serial offenders will have their pardon opportunities curtailed, the measure is not nearly as draconian as the “three-strike rule” in some U.S. states that leads to life sentences being handed out for minor felonies.
The CBC has reported that, up to 2004, one in every 20 adults in Texas was either in jail, on probation or on parole – the highest incarceration rate in the world, but a change may be coming.
Republican Jerry Madden, who heads the Texas house committee on corrections, told the CBC: “It’s a very expensive thing to build new prisons and, if you build them ... they will come, because people will send them there.
“But, if you don’t build them, they will come up with very creative things to do that keep the community safe and yet still do the necessary incarceration.”
Mr. Van Leeuwen says the Tories are not entirely forthcoming on the new laws’ cost. “It costs around $100,000 to incarcerate someone for a year.
“Rather than focusing on the symptoms of crime, those funds could be much better invested in seeking ways to prevent the root causes of it.”
The current Conservative platform includes $2.1 billion to be spent on building additional prison cells in the next five years.
Orangeville Police Deputy Chief Wayne Kalinski rationalized that building more prisons is proportionate to national growth.
“I base it on the fact the population is growing and they’re keeping up with infrastructure. With more people, you need more schools, more roads, and more sewer systems. It’s all part and parcel that you might need more prison cells.”
He would not comment on C-10. “It’s not our right to make comment on the laws, but to enforce them in a respectful, unbiased manner.”
Bill Prout, Dufferin Caledon Liberal candidate in the last federal election, echoed Ms. Bellan’s concerns, particularly in cases where judges have to mete out mandatory sentences
“Punishing someone for life for a stupid moment and lack of judgment is not what Canada needs or wants,” said Mr. Prout, an Alton businessman.
“We need to get smart on crime, not so much tough. The ‘tough on crime’ stance doesn’t work in the U.S., so why would it work here?
“American jails are full of marijuana users and it’s totally unnecessary. Legalize and control it, using the money, wasted on this supposed ‘war on drugs’ for rehabilitation and education. It will go much further in preventing crime associated with drug use.”
C-10 passed second reading two weeks ago and is currently before the House Justice and Human Rights Committee. The government limited debate to two days, citing the fact that all the bills had previously been debated.
Mr. Tilson pointed out that, prior to the election, the bills in question had been the subject of 187 Commons speeches over 31 sitting days. “That’s an extraordinary amount.”
Justice minister Rob Nicholson said the government’s objective “has been to build a stronger, safer and better Canada. This comprehensive legislation is another important step in the process to achieve this end.”
However, Statistics Canada data shows that overall crime rates in Canada are at their lowest level since 1973.
Ms. Bellan accused the Conservatives of “fear mongering,” adding “they are saying we have these law and order problems that we don’t have.”
Mr. Nicholson has countered similar criticism by pointing to a rise in drug and child sexual exploitation crimes. But critics suggest the increase in charges may be due to more victims being willing to come forward.
Bill C-10 provides new mandatory minimum penalties for seven existing offences related to what the Department of Justice calls “child exploitation,” as well as increasing maximum sentences for four current offences “to bring greater consistency in sentencing in these cases.”
Besides her concerns about judges losing discretion, Ms. Bellan observed that there are “degrees of sexual assault to be considered,” contending that the amendments “are painting them all with the same brush.”
Mr. Prout did say that, for the most part, he favours strengthening laws against violent offences, child abuse and pornography, as well as provisions against terrorism.
“The Conservatives plan is a step in the right direction but in some of this legisla- tion, they are moving backwards,” he said, adding: “Let’s get smarter about the justice system, when tougher doesn’t work.”
Ms. Bellan also ridiculed proposed new measures for young offenders, particularly one requiring consideration of lifting publication bans.
The Justice department maintains this would only apply to youths convicted of “violent offences,” such as murder or aggravated sexual assault, and Deputy. Chief Kalinski points out that it merely gives the crown the “discretion to release names.”
Ms. Bellan said, however, that it runs the risk of “stigmatizing a young person for life.”
Added Mr. Van Leeuwen: “The Government talking points depict C-10 critics as people who have somehow sided with criminals over victims. This negative, divisive PR campaign is the equivalent of electoral campaign attack ads. “The truth is that all Canadians would like to see a continuing decrease in crime and more consideration for its victims and that we have already seen those trends over the past years and decades.”