Things to know about this legislation

Jocelynn Marsden

It is imperative that we knowledgeably examine all legislation in this country, especially those proposed by majority governments. Given that Bill C-10, the government’s omnibus crime bill, contains some of the more significant and controversial reforms to our nation’s laws proposed to date by the Harper Government, reviewing it is even more crucial than usual.

Although Bill C-10 is now somewhat overshadowed by Bill C-30, a hotly debated Internet privacy act that aims to give police unprecedented Internet surveillance capabilities. It would be dangerous for the public to ignore C-10 or put it in the corner of their minds.

After being rushed through the House of Commons with no review, partisan or otherwise, the bill is now sitting in the senate awaiting approval. Its tendentious title, The Safe Streets and Communities Act, is, in truth, a bit of a misnomer. There is a complete disregard for any sociological, psychological, or judiciary evidence in this bill, and indeed, statistics from Stats Canada suggest that these amendments may have a detrimental effect on our statistically safest streets and communities in 30 years time.

Several sociologists, including Michel Foucault and Thomas Mathiesen, have expressed concern that if we make jailing citizens a priority of our laws, evidence seems to support the increased likelihood of those citizens, now convicted criminals, re-offending. In an ironic twist, we would also have criminals that are better trained and more connected with each other, as a result of being initiated into a criminal culture. In addition, the communities that tend to see the most crime – those with high unemployment, for example – are already in shambles, which increases the likelihood those communities will facilitate more deviant behavior.

The bill includes major amendments to the Criminal Code of Canada, significant amendments to the Youth Justice Act, vague amendments and proposals regarding immigration, and the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which permits victims to sue foreign states that enacted violence upon them in regards to terrorism or torture. The most publicized and positive aspect of Bill C-10 is longer minimum sentences for pedophiles, who currently receive the same sentence as an individual in possession of six marijuana plants. Unfortunately, this single act is being used as the packhorse for the entire bill. If you’re opposed to the bill, the government’s argument goes, you’re opposed to regulations to keep our children safe.

Minister of public safety Vic Toews recently quasi-apologized publicly for making a similar argument in support of the equally contentious Bill C-30: “Stand with us, or stand with the child pornographers.” Bill C-10, however, seems to suggest the problem isn’t with Toews; instead, it’s endemic to the Tories’ attitude towards their legislation. Safe Streets and Communities, recall – who could possibly be opposed to safer neighbourhoods, as a general rule? 

The problem is that our communities are already safer. Statistics Canada indicates the lowest national crime rates since the 1980s, and they are only dropping.

But, just like it’s not his business to know the most contentious parts of legislation like Bill C-30 – earlier this month, Toews admitted to being unfamiliar with “exceptional circumstances” provisions allowing police to demand information from Internet service providers – Toews has made clear that paying attention to statistics simply isn’t part of his portfolio.

“I don’t know if the statistics demonstrate that crime is down,” he said to a Senate committee on Feb. 1, “I’m focused on danger.”

To reduce the danger presented by a declining crime rate, the Conservatives have opted to build new prisons and hand out longer criminal sentences. In response to all the recent scrutiny surrounding the costs of imprisoning more people, for lesser crimes, for longer periods of time. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson stated to the same Senate committee, “The cost of crime on society far exceeds the cost of fighting crime.”

Most provincial governments, who will bear the brunt of the fiscal demands of Bill-C10, tend to disagree with Nicholson. Newfoundland’s Justice Minister Felix Collins, for example, spoke out firmly against the bill..

“Most groups, most experts, and most witnesses who have given presentations on this bill would advocate that the federal government is proceeding in the wrong direction, and that this procedure has been tried in other areas before and has proven to be a failure” he said to parliament on Dec. 6. “Incarcerating more people is not the answer.”

Collins went on to state the actual costs of the bill would be “astronomical”.

The costs and logistics of moving to a punitive system is and approach that has failed in a number of American states, to the point where even die-hard Republicans are criticizing the bill.     

Eric E. Sterling, who worked to create similar punitive laws in the US during the 1980’s, commented to Nicholson in a press conference in Regina.

“When you start going down this road of building more prisons and sending people away for long periods of time, and you convince yourself that this is going to deter people, you’ve made a colossal mistake,” he said. “We have learned the hard way that long sentences are not deterring people from selling drugs when the profits are so great.”

Sterling now works in Maryland for the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, and is no small voice on this matter.  Nicholson did not find his case convincing.

Bill C-10, as stated briefly above, includes many significant amendments to pre-existing criminal legislation, as well as adding new legislation.

The bill includes vague immigration and refugee protection amendments, which make it easier for the government to deny work permits, and seems to punish vulnerable foreigners instead punishing people who would unjustly take advantage of the benefits. 

There are also new rights for victims of torture and terrorism, allowing Canadian citizens to take legal action against states, and supporters, who sponsor terrorists. According to an official statement by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), not only is this expensive, but also exclusive legislation.

“[All victims would need] to have their cases ‘pre-approved’ by the government, which has the ability to decide which governments can and cannot be sued.” They wrote. “Canada should not play politics with victims of torture and terrorism.”

The mandatory minimum, as Sterling mentioned, introduces sentences for vague underlying offenses. The CCLA believes this is a move in the wrong direction.

“This may result in the imposition of unjust, grossly disproportionate sentences.  The drug provisions include low-level drug offenses – producing as little as six marijuana plants – and extremely broad aggravating factors which would [seem to] target all those who rent or live in a house they do not own.” Sterling said.

Another problem with overpopulating prisons is the affect this will have on already struggling communities – particularly Aboriginal communities, those living in poverty, and those with mental health needs. These populations are already greatly overrepresented in correctional institutions and existing social programs and services are already struggling to meet demands.

In Saskatchewan, as of 2008, prisonjustice.ca states that 79 per cent of our prison population is aboriginal. The removal of conditional sentencing for a large range of offences also eliminates the flexible sentencing that allows judges to consider factors such as single parenthood, socio-economic factors, mental needs —for conditions like Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder— and rehabilitative needs.

The Federal Government already has a rocky history handling Canadian citizens who are imprisoned abroad, and with facilitating their return to Canada. The amendments to the International Transfer of Offenders Act allows Minister Nicholson increased discretion over the return of citizens. The advantages of bringing more prisoners home to Canada is that they will receive culturally appropriate care, reintegration programs, and will be closer to their families. The CCLA highlights these benefits in their official statement.

“When offenders serve a portion of their sentence in Canada, it also allows the government to create records of their crimes and monitor their rehabilitation,” he said. “Absent such transfers, offenders would simply return to Canada at the end of their sentence without any records or legal restrictions on their activities.”

Another major critic of Bill C-10 is the non-partisan Canadian Bar Association, a group that represents some 37,000 people working in the judiciary field such as lawyers, students, judges, notaries, and teachers. It also released an official statement, and an analysis highlighting the discussing the major points of this bill. In its view, the initiatives in Bill C-10 go in a contrary direction.

“They [the Conservative government] adopt a punitive behavior approach to criminal behavior, rather than one concentrated on how to prevent that behavior in the first place, or rehabilitate those who do offend,” the CBA wrote. “As most offenders will one day return to their communities, we know that prevention and rehabilitation are most likely to contribute to public safety. The proposed initiatives also move Canada along a road that has clearly failed in other countries. Rather than replicate that failure, at enormous public expense, we might instead learn from those countries’ experience.”

The opposition from the CBA, CCLA, and numerous foreign and local political figures seems to be that the Harper government is being shortsighted. Although there are certainly positives ––like reviewing current sentencing for pedophiles – they do not outweigh the flaws. If we looked at all the pieces of this crime bill puzzle, we realize the final picture is one that will have a negative balance in our federal, provincial, and personal pocketbooks and, ironically, will a negative effect on our safe streets and neighborhoods.

Wisdom to pull from this is the antithesis of Toews’ argument. Stand democratically with us, or democratically dissent. But don’t be afraid to get informed.

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