03/06/2012 01:08 EST | Updated 05/06/2012 05:12 EDT

Opposition MPs decry rejection of proposed changes to justice bill

OTTAWA - Opposition parties chastised the government Tuesday for rejecting a raft of proposed amendments to a sweeping federal justice bill they see as a big backward step.

The omnibus bill has returned to the House of Commons from the Senate for final debate on some changes — but only ones endorsed by the governing Conservatives.

They would allow victims of terrorism to sue states that support political violence.

The bill would also impose stiffer sentences for sexual offences against children, usher in mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and toughen penalties for violent young offenders.

In addition, it would end house arrest for many crimes and force people to wait longer for a criminal pardon.

The Conservative majority is expected to allow the legislation easy passage on final reading.

Opposition MPs point out the crime rate has been steadily falling. But Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said it's his duty to keep the criminal law up to date.

"We need legislation that is responsive to what is happening on our streets, and meets the expectations of Canadians in the 21st century," said Nicholson.

"The proliferation of drugs and violent crime is unfortunately a reality in this day and age."

Both the Liberals and the NDP take issue with many elements of the bill, saying it will put young offenders on the wrong track and impose unnecessarily stiff sentences for some crimes.

The legislation would force people who have committed lesser offences to wait five years instead of three before they can apply for a pardon, while those who have committed a more serious offence will have to sit out 10 years instead of five.

NDP justice critic Jack Harris said making people wait longer to get a pardon is counter-productive.

"People understand that a pardon has some sort of redemptive effect and that it encourages rehabilitation and people getting a fresh start," he said at a news conference. "They've taken that away for no good reason at all."

Harris said the Conservative approach on youth justice marks a shift from a strategy that works best with young people — rehabilitation — to a wrongheaded one of denunciation and deterrence.

The terrorism amendments were first put forward by Liberal justice critic Irwin Cotler some time ago.

Cotler said while he's glad the government finally adopted them, the bill contains other provisions that will fail the mentally ill, aboriginal people, visible minorities and the poor.

He took special issue with mandatory minimum sentences, calling them vestiges of "failed and discredited American crime policy."

Overall, the bill "will give us more crime and less justice, and at increased cost to taxpayers," Cotler said.