Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told a Senate committee Wednesday that their government's omnibus crime bill will not create new criminals, as some critics have suggested, but will keep dangerous ones behind bars and therefore should be passed quickly.

The ministers kicked off the first day of hearings on the Safe Streets and Communities Act at the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee and called on senators to approve it "expeditiously."

The ministers promoted the bill, which is the combination of nine previous bills that were never passed in previous sessions of Parliament, while taking questions from senators for about an hour.

"Canadians deserve to feel safe in their homes and that means that violent criminals need to be off our streets," Nicholson said, adding later that the proposed legislative changes simply make sense.

The justice minister said the bill targets people in the business of trafficking drugs and exploiting children and sends a clear message to them that there are serious consequences for their actions.

Bill C-10 makes changes to several existing laws, it creates some new offences, introduces mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes, eliminates pardons and house arrest for some criminals and proposes a number of other changes, including reforms of youth justice laws. 

Some aspects of the bill are supported by the opposition parties, such as tougher sentences for sexual crimes committed against children, but MPs and some interest groups have raised concerns about other reforms.

Some critics have said the risk of crime will actually go up by putting more people in jail and for longer periods because of their chances of picking up more criminal behaviour while in custody and then re-offending once they are released.

"Our experience shows that toughening sentences does not create new criminals, it just keeps the existing ones in jail for a more appropriate period of time," Nicholson said.

Toews also talked about the importance of rehabilitation within the corrections system and said he wants to see more training go on within prison walls.

"The only way we ultimately beat crime is by educating these individuals once they're in prison," he said, adding there is bureaucracy getting in the way of more training for prisoners but that his department is working on it.

"We have opportunities that we should not waste when these guys ... are locked up for a period of time," he said.

Provinces have complained about cost

The provinces have also raised concerns about the cost of implementing the bill because of expected increases in prisoner populations and Quebec is flat out refusing to pay for expenses associated with the new crime bill.

Nicholson and Toews said many of the proposed changes were at the request of the provinces and that they found "widespread support" for them when they met with their provincial and territorial counterparts at a meeting last week.

Nicholson said transfer payments to the provinces have increased in recent years and that the cost of crime to society "far exceeds" the cost of fighting it.

Toews also suggested it's not fair for the provinces to ask the federal government for more money because of its policies when some provincial policies have resulted in more costs for the federal government. He said there has been a breakdown in the delivery of mental health services at the provincial level and that's had consequences.

He said there has been an increase in mental health problems in the federal penitentiary system because of how provinces have handled mental health issues.

"So do we then send them a bill and say we have to build new wings in our federal penitentiaries because of your provincial policies?" Toews said.

"Now, we didn't raise the issue of 'well, we need a whole lot of money for patients that come under essentially provincial jurisdiction.' But a failure of that provincial health system has resulted that these individuals are here," said Toews.

The ministers also dismissed criticism about the changes to young offender laws.

"We are proposing fair and appropriate measures to better handle youth crime, these measures are balanced, effective and responsible," said Nicholson.

Toews wants to focus on danger

Opponents of Bill C-10 often point to a decreasing crime rate when they criticize the government on its tough-on-crime agenda but Nicholson said even though the overall crime rate is going down, drug crimes and crimes against children are going up and that's what the proposed legislation targets.

Toews said he's not concerned with crime rate statistics and that much of the "rhetoric" on the costs of C-10 is "not warranted."

"Let's not talk about statistics, let's talk about danger," the public safety minister said.

He and Nicholson were the first of about 100 witnesses invited to appear at the committee. The committee is planning to sit for extended hours during the 11 days of hearings.