Hot! Justice system should focus more on victims’ rights, not criminals: ombudsman – news
Feb 2, 2012.   By Tobi Cohen, Ottawa

Canada’s justice system is far too offender-centric and it’s time to “shift the conversation” to ensure victims are treated more fairly, Canada’s new ombudsman for victims of crime said in her first report to be released Thursday.

Noting victims have few legislated rights and entitlements compared to offenders, Sue O’Sullivan called for an “Omnibus Victims’ Bill” to address the lack of access to offender information, meaningful participation at parole hearings and financial support for victims.

“Right now, the imbalance between the rights of offenders and the rights of victims are very stark in this country,” she said in an interview the day before her report was to be made public.

“Despite all the good intentions, the conversations about victims have been focused for the most part on offender-related issues and we think it’s time to tackle this head on.”

While the Conservative government’s tough-on-crime agenda, including Bill C-10, the so-called omnibus crime bill now under review in the Senate, contains some provisions for victims, O’Sullivan, who was named the ombudsman for victims of crime in Aug. 2010, said it’s not enough.

“We need to go farther,” said O’Sullivan, whose report contains some 20 recommendations aimed at rebalancing the justice system.

Victims, she said, should have access to a current photo of the offender in question at the time of their release from prison, as well as information about their incarceration and participation in any rehabilitation programs.

They should have an “automatic right” to attend parole hearings and should have the option to do so via video or teleconference. O’Sullivan argued victims also should be able to access recordings or transcripts of such proceedings.

Canada, she added, is far behind the United States when it comes to using technology to “enhance access to information for victims.” The U.S. has developed a telephone and web portal that allows registered victims to access offender information after hours and O’Sullivan is urging the Canadian government to develop something similar.

She’s also called for the federal victim surcharge convicts are required to pay, unless they could show proof of undue hardship, to be doubled and made mandatory. The fee is meant to support provincial and territorial victims’ services but O’Sullivan said too many offenders are getting out of it.

“Studies have found that judges are routinely waiving the surcharge and that the reasons for this are not being given,” she said in the report.

“Not surprisingly, the anticipated revenues to be generated by the automatic imposition of the federal victim surcharge were also found to be lacking.”

Noting “restitution is under-utilized and poorly enforced in Canada” where determinations about loss of income or property damages are made at the time of sentencing, O’Sullivan also recommended allowing restitution orders to be determined at a later date where necessary.

She further recommended victims be given detailed guidelines for calculating their losses and is urging the government to look at garnisheeing restitution awards from GST rebate cheques and employment insurance payments offenders receive.

“These are some excellent next steps that are going to allow us to continue to build on enhancing victims’ rights and their treatment in the criminal justice system,” she said.

“We think these recommendations can be combined into a comprehensive piece of legislation.”

While Bill C-10 addresses the rights of victims to read their impact statements at parole hearings, O’Sullivan said victims still have no definitive “right” to attend and they must have their statements vetted in advance.

There are also no provisions for victims who want to participate in a foreign offender’s immigration hearing and victims are kept in the dark with respect to any deportation orders.

The pending legislation removes an offender’s right to cancel a parole hearing within less than two weeks, but O’Sullivan said some think that’s still not enough time.

O’Sullivan said C-10, which is poised to pass within weeks, does broaden the definition of individuals who may access offender information to include guardians, caregivers and dependents of victims, and gives victims access to some additional information related to such things as prison transfers and serious disciplinary offences.

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