The federal government's massive crime bill won't help victims and could do the opposite, the former ombudsman for victims of crime warned Thursday.
Steve Sullivan, who was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as the first victims' ombudsman, said Bill C-10 is being touted as legislation designed to benefit victims but there are concerns it could hurt them instead.
Sullivan said Crown attorneys are warning that increased caseloads due to the bill could mean more plea bargains and dropped charges.
"That's not an agenda that benefits victims of crimes who turn to the system for justice," he said at a news conference on Parliament Hill.
"The bill is being sold as tough on sex offenders. Unfortunately, the government with this bill is going to spend 10 times more money on dealing with sex offenders than they are dealing with children, and building child advocacy centres," said Sullivan.
Former Progressive Conservative MP David Daubney and retired judges from Ontario and Yukon were also at the news conference to list complaints about the government's omnibus crime bill, which is now in the Senate's hands.
They are part of a group called the Smart Justice Network that is trying to promote discussion in Canada about "safe and effective" responses to crime.
Bill will drive up prison population, critic says
Daubney said a number of the bill's measures, including more mandatory minimum sentences and fewer conditional ones, and making it harder for offenders to get parole, will lead to a "burgeoning" prison population, a concern that has been expressed often during debate on the bill.
"I think fear is at the basis of much of the government's work here. And what it's going to do, unfortunately, is make Canadians, I think, more fearful and less safe," said Daubney, who was a member of Parliament in the 1980s and chaired the justice committee. He went on to work for the justice department after his work in the House of Commons.
The group said many of the government's proposed policies are unwarranted and unproven when it comes to improving public safety. Crime rates are dropping and experiences in other jurisdictions that have toughened sentencing and kept people in jail longer have proven to be ineffective and costly, the group said.
"I'm a judge, I have to make my decisions on the best evidence," said retired judge Barry Stuart. "I haven't seen the best evidence for spending this incredible amount of money on something that we know doesn't work," he said.
Retired Ontario judge James Chadwick said mandatory minimum sentences take discretion away from judges and that one size does not fit all in sentencing. He predicted there will be fewer guilty pleas, more trials, and longer trials.
Don Bayne from the Criminal Lawyers' Association predicts there will immediately be Constitutional challenges to the mandatory minimum provisions.
"Protracted legal battles are going to start to unfold over this unjustified policy," he said.
Government accused of ignoring evidence
The government has often defended its crime bill, and its costs, by saying the cost of crime to victims far outweighs what will be spent on implementing the new measures.
But Sullivan suggested that Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who are leading the government's efforts on justice reform, are taking the wrong approach.
"Certainly when it comes to victims, I think Minister Toews and Minister Nicholson have a very narrow view of what it is that victims actually need. I think they equate victims' rights and victims' needs with how you deal with the offender. So if you punish the offender enough then victims will be happy," he said.
Some victims groups might support that approach, he said, but a majority feel that what happens in courtrooms does little to benefit them. They are often disappointed and the Safe Streets and Communities Act will do little to change that, he said.
Sullivan and the other advocates said the government continues to ignore evidence that doesn't support its case.
"I think everything this government does is political," Sullivan said. "I honestly believe this is their ideology, and they think this will work and they just ignore anything that will question that. And I don't think that's a responsible government."
Responding to the criticism, Nicholson's office said the government is committed to improving the integrity of the justice system.
"The Safe Streets and Communities Act contains measures which target organized crime and those who commit sexual offences against children," Julie DiMambro, press secretary to Nicholson, said in an email. "This legislation responds directly to recommendations put forth by victims and law enforcement, many of whom testified before the Senate committee in the past week."
The House of Commons passed the Safe Streets and Communities Act in December. The Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee is now studying it.