POLITICS

Harper: Child Sex Crimes To Draw Tougher Penalties

08/29/2013 11:59 EDT | Updated 10/29/2013 05:12 EDT
CP
TORONTO - Child sex offenders, particularly those who victimize multiple kids, could spend longer in prison under a range of harsher penalties proposed Thursday by the prime minister.

The Conservative government plans to introduce legislation this fall aimed at cracking down on people who sexually exploit children, Stephen Harper announced.

"Sadly there are truly evil people out there. The fact is we don't understand them and we don't particularly care to. We understand only that they must be dealt with," Harper said at an event in Toronto.

"To protect our children we must create a justice system that is more responsive to victims and especially more responsive to children and to the families of children who have been victimized by sexual predators."

A main plank of the proposed amendments would see people convicted of more than one such offence serve their sentences consecutively, rather than the current system in which sentences are served concurrently.

Harper cited in his announcement the case of Gordon Stuckless.

The 64-year-old — who was once an usher at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens — was originally convicted in 1997 for sex assaults on 24 boys while he worked at the famed hockey arena between 1969 and 1988.

Harper pointed out that Stuckless was originally sentenced to two years less a day, a sentence which was followed by the suicide of Martin Kruze, the victim who brought the sex abuse scandal to light.

Stuckless' sentence was later increased to five years and he was out on parole in 2001 after serving two-thirds of it.

"Three years, for 20 very serious offences," Harper said. "That sort of thing was common at the time. Of course the victims, on the other hand, have to cope for the rest of their lives with what such people have done to them."

Stuckless now faces nearly 100 fresh charges, all laid in the past year, which relate to alleged offences that took place decades ago.

Lianna McDonald, the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said particularly when a sex offender has abused several children, the sentences don't seem like enough.

"In many cases where one individual might have multiple victims the sentence has not to date adequately reflect the number of those victims," she said after the announcement.

"For some victims in some circumstances it may not even seem that what happened to them really mattered in terms of the totality of the sentence."

The proposed law would also increase minimum and maximum penalties for child sexual offences.

Currently, people convicted of sexual interference, invitation to sexual touching or sexual exploitation are sentenced to a minimum of one year and a maximum of 10.

Making and distributing child pornography convictions carry the same sentence range. Convictions for accessing or possessing child pornography see people sentenced to a minimum of six months and a maximum of five years.

Harper's Conservative government has brought in a number of mandatory minimum sentences for various crimes over the years, including previously raising the minimum sentences for the aforementioned offences.

They have brought with them controversies and court challenges.

The Ontario Court of Appeal is considering the constitutionality of minimum sentences for gun crimes after it convened a special five-judge panel in February to hear six such cases at the same time.

In Quebec, the provincial bar association launched a legal challenge seeking to strike down sections of the Conservatives' 2012 omnibus bill involving mandatory minimums. The bar association said the provisions don't protect the public and represent an unconstitutional interference from one branch of government, the legislature, in the business of another, the judiciary.

Critics of mandatory minimum sentences say they don't actually help reduce crime and do more harm than good.

To understand the impact of mandatory minimums one need look no further than the United States, where harsh mandatory minimums were enacted decades ago, said criminal defence lawyer Nader Hasan.

"What even some of the most Conservative law-and-order-oriented judges and politicians south of the border have begun to realize is that mandatory minimums do no make us safer," said Hasan.

"What they do is overcrowd prisons and bankrupt legislatures."

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently said the Justice Department would target long mandatory sentences that he said have flooded the nation's prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be better spent.

Hasan, who teaches a course at the University of Toronto titled "Crime & Punishment: Mandatory Minimums, The Death Penalty & other Current Debates," said data from the U.S. shows little deterrent effect.

"The Harper government's fascination with mandatory minimums is all the more perplexing given that these policies have been tried but have failed miserably in the United States," Hasan said.

McDonald, from the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said her hope is that the harsher penalties will keep offenders behind bars longer so that it prevents them, for a time, from committing future offences.

The proposed amendments would also ensure the spouse of a person charged with child pornography offences could be obliged to testify in court and increase penalties for those convicted of child sex offences who break conditions of supervision orders.

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