Crime and punishment: Inside the Tories’ plan to overhaul the justice system

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NationalPost.com – Features
May 21, 2011.    Kathryn Blaze Carlson

The Conservative government’s omnibus crime legislation, due ‘‘within 100 days,’’ will mark a watershed moment in Canadian legal history, imposing many controversial changes to how police and the courts operate, experts say.

The bill is sweeping in scale and scope: It is expected to usher new mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes — growing five marijuana plants to sell the drug would automatically bring six months in jail — and for certain sexual offences against children. …  It will expand police powers online without court orders, reintroduce controversial aspects of the Anti-Terrorism Act that expired in 2007, end house arrest for serious crimes, and impact young offenders and their privacy.

“This bundle of crime legislation represents the most comprehensive agenda for crime reform since the Criminal Code was introduced,” said Steven Skurka, a Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer.

The omnibus legislation — which is expected to combine upward of a dozen bills, some of which failed to pass Parliament under minority-government rule — is one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s top priorities when Parliament resumes June 2. He promised during the election campaign to pass the bill within his government’s first 100 sitting days, and it is likely to whiz through the House of Commons and the Senate now that both are firmly under Tory control.

‘‘We remain unwavering in our commitment to fighting crime and protecting Canadians so that our communities are safe places for people to live, raise their families and do business,’’ said Pamela Stephens, spokesperson for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson. “We will be bringing forward comprehensive tackling-crime legislation to be passed within 100 days. Further details will be announced in due course.”

The Liberals, until recently the Official Opposition, claim crime has fallen in volume and severity in the past few years, and that the legislation simply goes too far. They argued that the United States, with its “mega prisons,” is suffering from the effects of this sort of tough-on-crime legislation.

Among the more controversial aspects of the bundle is mandatory minimum sentences. Minimum sentences are hardly new to the Criminal Code, and they are hardly partisan — the previous Liberal government imposed mandatory minimums on several child-exploitation offences. But the Conservative omnibus bill will dramatically expand them, limiting judicial discretion to levels unseen before.

Mark Hecht, a law professor at the University of Sherbrooke and senior legal counsel for child advocacy group Beyond Borders, said his group supports all of the Conservative government’s proposals relating to child sex-offences, including mandatory minimum sentences.

“The judiciary is consistently handing out sentences that are far too low for the crimes,” he said. “The only way to correct that — in the short term at least — is to impose mandatory minimums.”

The Conservatives have passed several significant crime bills since taking power in 2006, and they have already announced expansions to the prison system to accommodate increased incarceration rates.

Correctional Service Canada says existing legislation translates to a need for 2,700 new spaces at a cost of $2-billion. Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page thinks that number is more like 4,200 prisoners at a total cost of closer to $5-billion — raising annual prison expenditure to $9.3-billion by 2015-2016.

“The legislation is more based on punishment than prevention, and that’s dramatically new,” said Errol Mendes, a professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Ottawa. “It’s one of the most punishment-focused [agendas] in Canadian history.”

SOME OF WHAT THE CONSERVATIVE GOVERNMENT HAS DONE SO FAR

Mandatory Minimums

House Arrest

Eliminating Pardons

Harsher sentencing for child predators

Young Offenders

Cyber Investigation

Moving Offenders

Detention Without Charge

Suing Terrorists

Trial Efficiency

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