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Harper Government Omnibus Crime Bill: Canadian Justice Gets A Major Makeover

Tough on crime or the fast route to a police state?

With today’s Speech from the Throne, Canada is about to embark on a radical makeover of its justice system, dividing the left from right with tough-on-crime policies such as mandatory minimum sentences and an end to pardons for serious crime.

While Stephen Harper’s Conservative majority government has served notice its focus will remain on Canada’s fragile economy – and passing the budget that had come to a screeching halt before the election – the law-and-order agenda is firmly in its sights.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston is expected to give full expression to the Tories’ crime agenda when he addresses the Senate chamber this afternoon, his first Speech from the Throne since he was appointed last July.

There will be few surprises.

Harper vowed during his election campaign to ensure that an omnibus crime bill, consisting of a compilation of at least eleven previously delayed tough-on-crime bills, would be passed within the first 100 sitting days of Parliament. All of the bills had been previously introduced individually, and, in some cases, had been kicked around the Hill for years.

The very majority government that Harper can depend on to pass his wide-ranging omnibus bill was born of a non-confidence vote over its costs in March, resulting in the fall of the Conservative minority government and a spring election. The opposition found the Tories in contempt of Parliament for failing to provide enough information about the costs of its crime legislation, following a historic rebuke by the Speaker of the Commons.

The full cost of the crime package is unknown, but Canada’s budget watchdog, Kevin Page, has warned that longer sentences and reduced pre-sentence jail credits will add $1-billion a year to total spending on corrections in Canada, along with more than 4,000 inmates to the federal prison system.

The bill is expected to include measures that tackle organized drug crimes, establish tougher sentencing and mandatory jail terms for child molesters and Internet predators, end house arrest for violent offenders, and revamp young offender laws.

Many groups, including the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), strongly support the terrorism-related bills and applaud the changes.

“Successful civil judgments against terrorist groups or their state sponsors underpin their accountability,” says Eric Vernon of the CJC. “[It’ll also] have the additional salutary effect of denying them access to the critical funds they require for future attacks.

“A look around the world clearly tells us that terrorist acts remain a clear and present danger and our security and police personnel must have sufficient authority to take preventive action to interdict possible attacks before they occur … intrusive though they may be,” Vernon says.

Currently bound by legislation created in the 1970s, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) also readily supports the bundled bill, which in part acknowledges rapidly-changing technologies and investigative responses. “This new legislation responds to today’s needs and will allow police to improve their ability to protect the communities we serve,” said Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, CACP president.

But Jennifer Stoddart, Canada’s privacy commissioner, has raised concerns about state intrusion on privacy rights in an open letter to the federal government signed by all of her provincial and territorial counterparts.

The proposed legislation, particularly former Bill C-52, “would substantially diminish the privacy rights of Canadians … by enhancing the capacity of the state to conduct surveillance and access private information while reducing the frequency and vigour of judicial scrutiny,” Stoddart wrote.

Though the stated intent of the proposed legislation is to make Canadian society safer by punishing wrongdoers, some aspects of the crime bill remain controversial. Many civil libertarians feel that some of the proposals intrude upon constitutionally-guaranteed rights and freedoms.

Opponents, like Mariana Valverde, professor of criminology at University of Toronto, dismiss the bill as political posturing. “I haven’t seen any evidence that judges are actually being very lenient with offenders,” she said.

When asked about the merits of mandatory minimum sentences for child molesters, she is equally as adamant. “The majority of children who are sexually abused are sexually abused by relatives…,” she said. “So there may be situations in which the family itself might not be keen to have a really long sentence for uncle so-and-so.”

The bill will also see a marked shift from rehabilitation to the punishment of offenders – a significant turn from the path of criminal justice paved decades ago by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. A key component of the Conservative’s tough-love platform involves building more prisons to accommodate the expected surge in occupancy rates.

“Our government should be investing these billions in child care, affordable housing, social, educational and health services, all of which are proven means to prevent crime and benefit all Canadians,” said Kim Pate of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

But others, like Sharon Rosenfeldt, president of Victims of Violence, believe rehabilitation is a failed concept. “The justice system has become an ‘industry’ in the name of rehabilitation,” she said, noting offenders must be held accountable for their actions.

“It’s time to put the innocent victims of crime and the innocent Canadian public in the forefront.”

Providing an overview of the bills, for which the legislative summaries alone run hundreds of pages, is akin to trying to summarize the Bible in a single page. Here’s a best effort to summarize what’s in the crowded legislative package:

  • Eliminating Pardons for Serious Crimes Act (formerly known as Bill C-23B): Pardons will become known as “record suspensions.” Those who have committed three serious crimes, or have committed sexual crimes against children, will no longer be eligible for a pardon, and waiting periods for those who have committed lesser (summary conviction) crimes will be increased to five years from three;
  • Penalties for Organized Drug Crimes Act (formerly known as Bill S-10): Proposes mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of certain drug crimes. For example, Canadians convicted of trafficking a certain quantity of drugs such as marijuana, or who carried, used or threatened to use a weapon during the offence, will face a minimum jail term of one year. Two-year minimums will apply to those who deal drugs on school or prison grounds. Mandatory three-year terms will apply to those who build a grow-op on third-party property, those who create a potential safety hazard to children or to a residential area, and those who booby-trap a grow-op;
  • Ending House Arrest for Property and Other Serious Crimes by Serious and Violent Offenders Act (formerly known as Bill C-16): Ensures that several classes of violent offenders will be sent to prison rather than kept under house arrest. Those who have caused bodily harm, used a weapon, lured a child, been involved in human or drug trafficking, or committed an offence for which the maximum penalty is 14 years or life, are among those who will no longer be eligible;
  • Protecting Children from Sexual Predators Act (formerly known as Bill C-54): Amends the Criminal Code to increase, or apply, mandatory minimum sentences for certain sexual offences involving children. Two new offences are also created: making sexually explicit material available to a child, and agreeing or arranging to commit a sexual offence against a child. The bill also gives judges wider scope to prohibit contact with minors and access the Internet as conditions of sentencing and recognizance orders;
  • Protecting the Public from Violent Young Offenders Act (formerly known as Bill C-4): Proposes changes to certain provisions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act, including: establishing deterrence and denunciation as sentencing principles, expanding the definition of violent crime to include reckless behavior that endangers public safety, facilitating publication of the names of certain young offenders, and prohibiting imprisonment of youths in adult correctional facilities;
  • Fair and Efficient Criminal Trials Act (formerly known as Bill C-53): Among the measures sought to streamline and speed up criminal court proceedings is the appointment of “case management judges” to assist trial judges, and the provision that, in the case of a mistrial, certain previously-rendered decisions are binding on those of any subsequent proceedings;
  • Keeping Canadians Safe [International Transfer of Offenders] Act (formerly known as Bill C-5): Mandates that the justice minister may use discretion when determining whether a Canadian imprisoned in a foreign land should be returned to Canadian soil. A greater emphasis is also placed on the issue of public safety, the offender’s health, and their likelihood to engage in further criminal activity;
  • Investigative Powers for the 21st Century Act (formerly known as Bills C-50, C-51, and C-52): Seeks to modernize the language of certain offences in the Criminal Code and other federal Acts and equip police with new investigative powers designed for the computer age. Newly created offences include: possessing a computer virus to commit mischief and promoting hatred by posting a hyperlink directing users to hate material;
  • Combating Terrorism Act (formerly known as Bill C-17): Will reinstate anti-terrorism provisions that expired under a sunset clause in 2007. The measures provide for a three-day detention without cause, known as “preventative arrests,” when it is believed that such action will prevent an act of terrorism. A suspect may also be compelled to disclose information to a court in relation to possible terrorism, even in absence of a charge;
  • Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act (formerly known as Bill C-35): Allows victims of terrorism to sue individuals, organizations, terrorist entities, and those foreign states who support them for losses or damages that occurred after January 1, 1985.

David A. Gibb is an investigative consultant and journalist, with 25 years experience as a private investigator and more than 4,400 successful missing person cases to his credit. Gibb's book, Camouflaged Killer: The Shocking Double Life of Canadian Air Force Colonel Russell Williams, will be published in the U.S. and Canada later this year.

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