Harper government tables comprehensive crime bill

  Sep 20, 2011 – 11:44 AM ET

By Tobi Cohen and Jason Fekete

OTTAWA — A sweeping omnibus crime bill tabled Tuesday that seeks to crack down on young offenders, drug dealers, sexual predators and Canadians in foreign prisons is under fire from critics — who argue it’s a waste of time and money since crime rates are on the wane in Canada.

The bill, dubbed the Safe Streets and Communities Act, comprises nine individual justice bills that died during the previous parliamentary session because the then-minority Tory government could not push them through.

Speaking in Brampton, Ont., on Tuesday accompanied by a number of representatives from victims-rights groups, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the new legislation will include measures to protect children from sexual offenders by setting mandatory minimum penalties, will target organized drug crime and crack down on young offenders.

The legislation also will take away the option of house arrest for those who have been convicted of serious violent and property crimes, such as sexual assault, human trafficking, arson, break and enter, child-luring and kidnapping, he said.

“Since coming into office, our government has accomplished a great deal when it comes to cracking down on crime and better protecting Canadians,” he said.

“But we know more needs to be done. Canadians want and deserve to feel safe in their homes and their communities.”

The government has vowed to pass the bill within the first 100 sitting days of the new Parliament, which began Monday.

The opposition has promised to oppose it, citing Statistics Canada data that suggest crime is actually going down in this country as well as U.S. studies that conclude locking people up for longer doesn’t necessarily work. With their Commons majority, however, the Conservatives no longer need the opposition’s support.

NDP justice critic Joe Comartin said that the bill focuses on incarceration rather than crime prevention.

“The evidence generally was overwhelmingly opposed to most of this legislation and the witnesses who came forward pointed out the faults and the frailties of the approach that they’re taking,” Mr. Comartin said.

The bill will also heap additional costs on provinces, Comartin said, as provincial institutions house more prisoners for minor drug crimes.

Mr. Comartin said that he was happy to see provisions in the youth crime bill that give the courts more ability to keep violent offenders behind bars in pre-trial custody.

“Those were proposals that were not in the original bill,” he said.

Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae slammed the legislation, suggesting the government is taking Canada in an “ideological direction” that has more to do with its “obsession” with the “symbolism” of denouncing crime than with actually improving public safety.

“The only good news that we’ve seen in the last little while is that the crime rate is going down — and this is the time the Conservatives have chosen to dump on the house 110 pages of laws changing the Criminal Code, which will significantly increase the prison population at the rate of $108,000 per inmate, per year.”

He argued the government has provided no estimate as to the cost of the legislation — nor, he said, has it provided any evidence as to its efficacy in terms of public safety.

While he said some aspects of the bill are acceptable, he’s opposed to the decision to lump everything together in a single piece of legislation. He argues the bill doesn’t take into account the impact of addiction and mental health on crime, that it ignores America’s failed war against drugs and that it’s bound to make the over-representation of aboriginal people in Canada’s prisons even worse.

“I think the government is trying to change the channel,” he said.

“The government senses it’s vulnerable on the economy so it prefers not to talk about the economy and really not do anything about the economy either and to substitute it with this omnibus bill and this tough-on-crime bill.”

Catherine Latimer of the John Howard Society, an organization dedicated to effective crime responses and the rights of offenders, also raised a number of concerns about the proposed bill, including the potential for overcrowding in prisons, the cost to provinces, territories and taxpayers and the tight time frame the government has set for passing the legislation.

“We think it will endanger corrections workers and inmates and compromise rights and not promote good corrections and undermine principles of justices and have a disproportionately harsh impact on some of the most vulnerable members of our society,” she said.

Arguing that “blindly following failed American policies is not in the interest of Canadians,” she called on the government to provide evidence as to the effectiveness of some of the provisions contained in the omnibus bill.

Posted From: http://news.nationalpost.com/2011/09/20/harper-government-tables-comprehensive-crime-bill/