Quebec's justice minister called the federal government's omnibus crime bill a "Band-Aid solution" Tuesday and said his province will refuse to absorb the added costs associated with it.
Jean-Marc Fournier, testifying at the House of Commons justice and human rights committee, said Bill C-10 will wind up causing more crime, not less, because it is an unbalanced piece of legislation that doesn't focus enough on the rehabilitation of criminals, particularly young offenders.
He said the legislation is meant to put more people in jail and that will result in higher recidivism rates unless more is done to get at the root causes of criminality and to successfully reintegrate offenders into society so they can go on to lead productive lives.
"What we want is a sustainable protection of the public," he said. "We wish to see a reinsertion of the youth in society so that society can benefit from it."
Fournier said Quebec takes a different approach to dealing with young offenders that is more focused on rehabilitation than incarceration and that it is working. He encouraged MPs to take their time and to examine the evidence from his province and to reject the Safe Streets and Communities Act in its current form.
He said young offenders often come out of prison worse than how they went in and attention needs to be paid to the root causes of their criminality in order to prevent them from re-offending.
Fournier said the Conservatives' bill is more of a short-term solution to fighting crime and he repeatedly warned it will mean more repeat offenders in the court and corrections systems.
"C-10 does not take into account the return of the young offender, of the individual into society," he said.
"What you've got is a Band-Aid solution here, you're not curing anything," Fournier told the committee.
The omnibus bill combines nine pieces of legislation that were not passed in previous sessions of Parliament and it makes major changes to several laws, including those that apply to young offenders, and creates new offences in the Criminal Code. It proposes mandatory minimum sentences for a number of new offences, which will mean more convicted criminals in jail and many concerns have been raised about the costs of higher prison populations.
"It is clear that this bill does not offer the financial support necessary to support the changes. Quebec refuses to absorb the costs," Fournier told the committee. "We won't pay, we won't pay these additional costs."
He later told reporters that Quebec has 40 years of experience using its approach with young offenders and that the province is considered a model for jurisdictions around the world. He said the federal government should produce evidence to back up the policy decisions in the bill and he made it clear Quebec is not on side with paying for those decisions.
"This is not our decision to change a course of 40 years ... That is not our choice so we will not pay for that choice that is not ours," he said.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty also said Tuesday that his province is unwilling to pick up the tab for the costs of the omnibus crime bill that will fall to the provinces. He said taxpayers in Ontario expect him to demand from the federal government that it be responsible for costs for its legislation, and that's what he is going to do.
"It's easy for the federal government to pass new laws dealing with crime but if there are new costs associated with those laws that have to borne by taxpayers in the province of Ontario, I expect that the feds would pick up that tab," McGuinty said.
Quebec's justice minister said he has proposed amendments to the legislation and that Quebec wants to work with the federal government to maintain public safety. Even though the Conservatives can use their majority to push the bill through the House of Commons and Senate, he said he isn't giving up on the bill being amended.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, however, isn't showing any signs of bending on the bill. At an event in Montreal Tuesday he said he's confident it's a good bill that won't be changed. On the costs issue raised by Quebec, Nicholson said the provinces receive transfer payments from the federal government to administer their justice systems and that rehabilitation falls under the jurisdiction of the provinces.
Quebec is also opposed to the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions in the bill because Fournier says they don't allow judges to use their discretion.
"You have to take into account the context of the offence," he said.
Police voice support for the bill
The committee also heard from police representatives at the meeting Tuesday who voiced their support for the controversial legislation.
Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, said the proposed legislation will help police keep communities more safe.
"Keep these criminals in jail longer, and you take away their opportunity to traffic in drugs," he said.
Violent offenders are not deterred by the current sentencing and parole policies, he said, and stronger interventions and deterrents are needed.
"These changes will go a long way to ensuring that those criminals that are caught as a result of our investigations will face an appropriate punishment for their crimes," he said.
He did note, however, his association's concerns about the costs associated with the proposed changes.
"Police budgets across Canada are at their breaking point. So in order to keep our communities safe, we require both the tools and the resources that are necessary to avoid the kind of service cuts that would put the gains that we've made at unnecessary risk," he said.
Youth advocates call for delay
Another witness at Tuesday's meeting testified that the government should be dealing with the changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act separately.
Kathy Vandergrift, chair of the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, told the committee her group is supportive of some parts of the bill but not others and that no changes should be made until MPs are fully aware of how the proposals fulfill or violate Canada's obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
"The youth justice system needs to be different from the adult system," she said. "Changes in youth justice should be considered separately in order to ensure that high priority is given to the best interests of children at all stages of the bill's consideration," Vandergrift said.
She said there is no evidence to warrant a rushed job on passing the bill and that in its current form, it violates articles of the UN convention. She cited proposed changes to the publication of names and to detention rules as examples of one of the violations.