New Brunswick supports federal crime bill

New Brunswick's justice minister told MPs Thursday that her government supports the federal omnibus crime bill, but will be vocal about its financial impact on the province.
New Brunswick Premier David Alward meets with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in October in Ottawa. On Thursday, his province's justice minister said New Brunswick supports Harper's omnibus crime bill. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

New Brunswick's justice minister and attorney general told MPs Thursday that her government supports the federal omnibus crime bill but isn't "naive" about the costs associated with it.

Marie-Claude Blais, appearing before the House of Commons committee studying the proposed legislation, said she knows the Safe Streets Act will mean more expenses for the provinces but that it should proceed.

"We are aware of the impact that this is going to have financially and we don't deny that it will have an impact ... we'll need to sit down, we'll need to look at how we can be effective at the way that we budget," she told MPs on the justice committee.

Blais said that when legislation from the federal government means expenses for the provincial governments, they need to sit down at the table and discuss it and that's what New Brunswick intends to do.

"The fact that we do support this bill won't stop us [from bringing] forward our challenges that we have financially to the federal government, quite the contrary. We do intend to be very vocal about some of the challenges like we have been in any other cases and this is not only about justice," she said.

Blais said she is concerned about protecting victims, especially children and that child exploitation is a big concern in her small province. She said people who commit crimes against children need to be punished strongly and that the omnibus crime bill will help do that and protect victims.

"We need to be serious on this, we need to act on this and we intend to do so," she said.

Blais is the second provincial justice minister to testify at the committee this week. On Tuesday, Quebec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier testified and was adamant that his province is not willing to pick up the tab for the sweeping changes the Conservative government is proposing to make to the corrections and court systems.

Ontario's Premier Dalton McGuinty sided with Quebec and commented that he expects the federal government to cover the costs that are expected due to higher case loads in the courts and higher prison populations.

Howard Sapers, the federal ombudsman for offenders, was also among the witnesses and said some of the measures in the bill, including new mandatory minimum sentences, will lead to a bigger prison population and that jails are already overcrowded.

He said about 13 per cent of the male prison population is currently double-bunked, meaning they are housed in bunks built for one person. That rate is expected to grow to 30 per cent before planned new prison expansions are finished.

"Prison crowding undermines nearly everything that can be positive or useful about a correctional environment," he said. Sapers said crowding is linked to increased violence, spread of diseases, and it reduces already limited access to programming.

Sapers also took issue with the bill's proposal to change the rules around granting pardons, including the prevention of some offenders from ever getting one.

He said the vast majority of people who get a pardon do not re-offend and that pardons are currently granted on a case-by-case basis.

"The system appears to work well," he said.

Saper said it is his view that offenders need to be assisted in making the transition to employment once they leave jail and that the government's efforts to expand vocational training in correctional facilities would be "self-defeating" if former inmates then faced additional barriers to getting a job because of their pasts.