Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Justice Minister Peter MacKay announced Wednesday that the government would introduce a bill to eliminate parole for people found guilty in certain types of killings, arguing they should have to serve life behind bars.
The move is good politics for the Conservative Party, said McLoughlin Media president Barry McLoughlin, amid signs the announcement is geared toward currying favour in the party's base.
Harper admitted the proposed law would only apply to "a relatively small number of offenders," and a government spokeswoman was unable to provide any examples where it was needed.
It will also be difficult to get the legislation through Parliament in the 11 weeks remaining in the parliamentary calendar. While the government will introduce the bill next week, that doesn't leave much time for it to be debated in the House and Senate, plus examined by two parliamentary committees. Parliament is now focused on C-51, the government's new anti-terrorism bill, and will have to deal with the federal budget in April.
McLoughlin says the policy is consistent with Harper's positions over the years, but it's a measure that reminds people what the Conservatives' core motives and values are.
"I think the real issue is in an election year, after nine years in office, it's time to refresh the government's brand," McLoughlin told CBC News on Wednesday.
Doesn't matter if bill passes
It's also a clear issue that forces the NDP and the Liberals onto the other side, McLoughlin said.
"They can't possibly support this. And that puts them in a very strong position in the tough-on-crime issue," he said.
The bill hasn't been tabled yet, so it's hard for the parties to take a position. But the NDP suggested Wednesday that they see problems with it, particularly when it comes to inmates' charter rights. The Liberals put out a news release criticizing Harper for fanning "the flames of fear about crime."
Between the timing of the bill's introduction and the possibility of charter challenges — which Harper himself raised, calling the concerns legitimate — it may not make it into law, or stay law for very long.
But McLoughlin says for the purposes of the Conservative Party, that won't matter.
"It's going to be put into play and it's part of their overall agenda, and whether or not ultimately it gets passed or whatever is frankly secondary to that," he said.
A spokeswoman for Government House Leader Peter Van Loan said no debate has been scheduled since the bill hasn't yet been tabled.
Asked last month about the possibility, MacKay suggested there were constitutional limits on what the government could do.
"What I'll tell you is that everything we do, we do through the lens of the [Charter of Rights and Freedoms]," he said.
"We have to be aware that there are constitutional limitations in some cases on criminal legislation, so we have to do it through that lens. And when it comes to denying someone any possibility of parole, this weighs heavy in that — in the balance of that consideration."
Harper referred on Wednesday to the legislation being MacKay's bill and said the justice minister was instrumental in creating it.
97 per cent don't reoffend
The proposed legislation announced by Harper would end parole for those convicted of murders involving:- Sexual assault.
- A police or corrections officer.
- Particular brutality.
The legislation would allow the convicted killers to voluntarily petition the public safety minister for release after serving no less than 35 years. The federal Cabinet would decide whether to allow parole for that person.
Currently, those who are convicted of first-degree murder face an automatic sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. If they're granted parole, they live the rest of their lives under the conditions imposed by the Correctional Service of Canada and can be re-imprisoned for breaking those conditions.
Canada's prison watchdog, Howard Sapers, told CBC News in January that 99 per cent of offenders released on day parole last year did not reoffend, and 97 per cent of offenders released on full parole completed their parole without reoffending.
Sapers told CBC News on Wednesday that there have been instances of offenders killing someone while on parole, but that it's a difficult issue to discuss using statistics.
"Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt. And the system has to really put its effort into assessing and managing risk, and that is best done on a very case-specific basis," Sapers said.
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