TORONTO - Promises to give victims a formal role in Canada's criminal justice system and to stiffen penalties for child sex predators are important if overdue federal initiatives, two abused former hockey players said Monday.
Speaking after a roundtable with the justice minister, Greg Gilhooly and Sheldon Kennedy said the Conservative government was on the right track, even if details were lacking.
"Right now a victim is simply a witness — we're at the beck and call of other people," Gilhooly said.
"To the extent that we can be given a formalized role in the judicial process, that to me would be a wonderfully empowering thing."
A victim's bill of rights was one of three get-tough-on-crime themes the government plans to emphasize this year, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said. The aim is to entrench the rights of victims into a single law.
Nicholson also promised stiffer sentences for child-sex predators.
"Their punishment for these crimes must reflect the devastation they cause in the lives of children and their families," the minister said.
Concerns over sentencing arose after former hockey coach Graham James was jailed for two years last year for assaults on ex-NHL star Theo Fleury and his cousin Todd Holt in the 1980s and '90s.
The Crown has appealed the sentence as too lenient in a case that also saw the prosecution stay charges involving assaults on Gilhooly as part of James's guilty plea.
James had already been sentenced to 3 1/2 years in the mid-1990s for assaulting Kennedy and another young hockey player. He served 18 months.
"The key here is that we're having conversations about the importance of not only rehabilitating the criminals but rehabilitating the victims," Kennedy said.
"I couldn't have imagined 16 years ago, when I disclosed my abuse, that we'd be talking about these issues so openly and with such commitment to be making positive change for victims."
Nicholson said the government will announce specific measures in the weeks and months to come.
Currently, small-time marijuana growers face stiffer mandatory minimum sentences than those who rape children, an irony not lost on Gilhooly, who has a law degree.
"I personally don't believe that those who grow marijuana deserve to go to jail," Gilhooly said. Those who commit sexual assaults against children do."
Still, the government now appears to view sex crimes against children as a priority, even if any measures come too late to help him, Gilhooly said.
"I'm slowly coming to grips with the fact that I was never going to get justice from the justice system," he said, "It's more a legal-results system than a justice system."
Kennedy said the government's past focus on cracking down on criminals has sometimes left victims — especially child victims — in the legislative cold.
"Sometimes, yeah, absolutely, victims are lost," he said.
"There is real invisible trauma, invisible damage that happens to these types of victims."
Nicholson also promised legislation to make public safety the "paramount consideration" in cases where accused criminals are found not criminally responsible by reason of a mental disorder.
He also pledged better use of new technologies to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of bail and extradition regimes.
New Democrat justice critic Francoise Boivin called Nicholson's roundtable a public relations exercise devoid of substance.
"It's a government that talks a lot but doesn't necessarily act seriously," Boivin said.
Liberal justice critic, Irwin Cotler, accused the Tory government of recycling its old crime and punishment agenda.
"There's nothing in there about access to justice and the need for legal aid," Cotler said. "Why is it there's nothing in there about aboriginal justice?"
Related on HuffPost:
15 Things Critics Fear In The Tory Crime Bill
Opposition parties, professionals working within the corrections and justice systems, the Canadian Bar Association and various other interest groups have raised wide-ranging concerns about the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/news/omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">omnibus crime bill</a>. Here is an overview of some of their objections. (CP/Alamy)
15. Harsher Sentences For Young Offenders
Changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act will impose tougher sentences for violent and repeat young offenders, make it easier to keep such offenders in custody prior to trial and expand the definition of what is considered a "violent offence" to include "creating a substantial likelihood of causing bodily harm" rather than just causing, attempting to cause or threatening to cause bodily harm. The new legislation will also require the Crown to consider adult sentences for offenders convicted of "serious violent offences" and require judges to consider lifting the publication ban on names of offenders convicted of "violent offences" even when they have been given youth sentences. Some of the concerns around these provisions raised by some of the professionals who work with young offenders include: (Alamy)
14. Young Offenders - Naming Names
The publication of names of some young offenders will unjustly stigmatize them for life. Quebec has asked that provinces be allowed to opt out of this provision. (Getty)
13. Young Offenders - Stiffer Sentences
Stiffer, longer sentences will turn young offenders into hardened criminals and undermine any potential for rehabilitation. (Alamy)
12. Young Offenders - Minorities Take The Brunt
As with other parts of the crime bill, critics says harsher sentencing rules and increased emphasis on incarceration will <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/20/bill-c-10-omnibus-crime_n_1289536.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">disproportionately affect aboriginal</a> and black Canadians, who are already over-represented in the criminal justice system. (Alamy)
11. Young Offenders - Forget Rehabilitation
The changes shift the emphasis of the Act from rehabilitation to "protection of society," which critics say will put the focus on punishing young offenders rather than steering them away from a life of crime. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/11/22/crime-bill-quebec-canada_n_1107717.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">Quebec, in particular, which prides itself on the success of the rehabilitative aspects of its youth justice system, has argued for stronger language prioritizing rehabilitation</a>. (Alamy)
10. Fewer Conditional Sentences
The legislation will eliminate conditional sentences, those served in the community or under house arrest, for a range of crimes, including sexual assault, manslaughter, arson, drug trafficking, kidnapping and fraud or theft over $5,000. It will also eliminate double credit for time already served. Critics say these changes will: (Getty)
9. Fewer Conditional Sentences - Spike Costs
Cost the federal and provincial justice and corrections systems millions of additional dollars a year. The parliamentary budget officer, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/28/omnibus-crime-bill-costs-conditional-sentences_n_1306528.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">Kevin Page, has estimated that the average cost per offender will rise from approximately $2,600 to $41,000</a> as a consequence of the elimination of conditional sentences. (Alamy)
8. Fewer Conditional Sentences - More Trials And Hearings
- Lead to more trials as those accused of crimes will be less likely to plead guilty if they know there is no chance they will get a conditional sentence and will be more likely to take their chances on a trial. Some have predicted this will lead to greater backlogs in an already backlogged court system. - Result in more parole hearings. Page's analysis predicted that with the increase in the number of incarcerations, there will be more offenders coming up for parole, which will increase costs for federal and provincial parole review boards. A single review by the Parole Board of Canada costs an estimated $4,289, Page estimated. (Alamy)
7. Mandatory Minimums
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/22/bill-c-10-drugs-mandatory-minimums-omnibus_n_1292894.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">By far the most criticized aspect of the bill is the introduction of mandatory jail sentences for certain crimes, including drug trafficking, sex crimes, child exploitation and some violent offences</a>. Opponents of the measures have argued that this type of sentencing has been tried in other jurisdictions, most notably in the U.S., and has created more problems than it has solved. Critics say that coupled with other changes in the bill, such as increases in the maximum sentences handed down to some drug offenders and sexual predators and elimination of conditional sentences in some cases, mandatory minimums will burden Canada's prison and court systems in ways that are unfeasible, untenable and have little benefit. In particular, they argue that mandatory minimum sentences will: (Jupiter Images)
6. Mandatory Minimums - Higher Costs
Increase the costs of prosecuting and incarcerating offenders and leave fewer funds for rehabilitation programs. (Alamy)
5. Mandatory Minimums - Overcrowding
Lead to overcrowding in prisons. (Alamy)
4. Mandatory Minimums - Make Judges Less Powerful
- Remove judges' discretion to tailor sentences to the specifics of a particular case and offender and force them to apply blanket, one-size-fits-all sentences regardless of circumstances - Limit the use of alternate sentencing measures of the type currently applied to aboriginal offenders. (Alamy)
3. Mandatory Minimums - Over-Punish Drug Offenders
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/02/omnibus-crime-bill-pierre-claude-nolin_n_1316481.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">Disproportionately punish small-time drug offenders and have limited effect on the drug producers, organized crime bosses and serious drug traffickers</a> the government says it wants to target. (Alamy)
2. Mandatory Minimums - What's The Point?
Have little rehabilitative effect on offenders and rather leave them more, not less, likely to re-offend. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/11/27/tough-on-crime-conservatives-doubt-tough-sentences_n_1115012.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill">Critics point to numerous studies showing harsher incarceration laws do not have a deterrent effect on criminals or lower crime rates</a>. (Alamy)
1. Mandatory Minimums - What Charter?
Violate provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and open up the government to legal challenges on grounds that the sentencing rules violate certain rights that offenders have under the Charter, such as the right to liberty, the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and the right to equal protection and benefit of the law. (Alamy)