NEWS: Around the Arctic September 21, 2011 - 11:50 am

Tories unveil crime bill, but not the costs

Legislation targets young offenders, sexual predators

SPECIAL TO NUNATSIAQ NEWS

POSTMEDIA NEWS

Sweeping criminal reform legislation introduced in the House of Commons on Tuesday would require renovating half of Canada’s 57 federal penitentiaries and require the Correctional Service of Canada to hire about 3,000 employees to handle an influx of more than 4,000 new inmates as a result of the tougher sentencing laws.

Canada’s spending watchdog is among the most vocal critics of the proposed bill, which seeks to crack down on young offenders, drug dealers, sexual predators and Canadians in foreign prisons.

The new Safe Streets and Communities Act combines nine crime bills that died during the previous parliamentary session into one omnibus piece of legislation the government hopes to pass within the first 100 sitting days of Parliament now that it has a majority in the House of Commons.

But Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page said the Harper government needs to come clean immediately on the cost of the bill and is raising questions about whether the Conservatives adequately budgeted for the new measures.

“Parliament needs to see the numbers and if they don’t see the numbers, that’s a major concern,” he told Postmedia News.

“Hopefully, we’re not repeating the practices of the past because I think that would be a big mistake.”

Page noted that governments planning major policy changes traditionally release detailed documents outlining both the costs of the programs and where the government will find the funding.

“It raises issues about whether this money has been set aside in the fiscal framework,” he said. “We have not seen any adjustment to the budget.”

He wants the federal government to identify operating and capital costs, as well as the expected outcomes, effects on the number of inmates, sentence lengths and other pertinent information.

The legislation sets out a number of mandatory minimum sentences for sexual crimes involving children and drug crimes and seeks to hold young offenders more accountable for their crimes, even allowing the courts to lift publication bans on the names of youths convicted of particularly violent offences.

If passed, it will end house arrest for serious offences. It also allows victims of terrorism to sue perpetrators and gives the minister more say over the transfer of Canadian convicts serving prison sentences abroad.

NDP justice critic Joe Comartin said the bill focuses on incarceration rather than crime prevention.

“The evidence generally was overwhelmingly opposed to most of this legislation and the witnesses who came forward pointed out the faults and the frailties of the approach that they’re taking,” Comartin said.

“The better way to bring crime down is to prevent it from ever happening ... If [Harper] really wants to get at the cost of crime ... prevent the crime from ever happening in the first place. These bills don’t do anything in that regard.” Comartin said the bill also will heap additional costs on provinces which will have to house more prisoners for minor drug crimes. Citing justice department estimates, he said the drug bill alone will increase the prison population by up to 5,000 inmates.

Comartin said he was pleased to see provisions that give the courts more power to keep violent young offenders behind bars before their trial.

“Those were proposals that were not in the original bill,” he said.

Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae slammed the legislation, suggesting the government is taking Canada in an “ideological direction” that has more to do with its “obsession” with the “symbolism” of denouncing crime than with actually improving public safety.

“The only good news that we’ve seen in the last little while is that the crime rate is going down - and this is the time the Conservatives have chosen to dump on the house 110 pages of laws changing the Criminal Code, which will significantly increase the prison population at the rate of $108,000 per inmate, per year,” he said.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM SAFE STREETS AND COMMUNITIES ACT

THE SAFE STREETS AND COMMUNITIES ACT TABLED TUESDAY WOULD:

• Increase minimum sentences for sexual offences against children to one year from 45 days in prison for indictable offences and 90 days from 14 for summary convictions. The bill also sets minimum sentences for incest, bestiality, child pornography and public indecency;

• Create two new offences: providing sexually explicit material to a child for the purpose of engaging the child in a sexual offence, and using the Internet, or any other telecommunication device, to arrange a meeting with a child to commit a sexual offence;

• Set a minimum sentence of one year in prison for those convicted of drug trafficking and who are tied to organized crime, are repeat offenders or who used violence during the commission of the offence. The minimum sentence becomes two years for trafficking drugs on or near school grounds or other public places frequented by children. Importing drugs will also carry a one year minimum sentence;

• Double the maximum sentence for marijuana production to 14 years and impose a minimum six-month sentence for the production of between six and 200 plants;

• Date rape drugs and amphetamines would become Schedule I drugs, resulting in higher maximum penalties when used in the commission of an offence;

• Entitle crime victims access to the name and location of the prison where the offender is serving their sentence;

• Enshrine the victim’s right to participate in parole hearings;

• Ensure violent and repeat young offenders are held accountable and that the protection of society remains paramount. Under the legislation, the courts may consider lifting publication bans on the names of young offenders convicted of violent youth offences;

• End conditional sentences — house arrest — for serious crimes including sexual assault, human trafficking, arson, break and enter, child-luring and kidnapping; and,

• Toughen the International Transfer of Offenders Act by requiring the minister to consider whether an applicant might endanger public safety, continue to engage in criminal activity or endanger the safety of any child before deciding unilaterally whether to repatriate the individual.