What worries critics about omnibus crime bill

Opposition parties, justice and corrections professionals, the Canadian Bar Association and other interest groups have raised concerns about the Conservatives' omnibus crime bill, which was passed in the House of Commons March 12. We take a look at some of the most common objections to the legislation.
The Conservatives' omnibus crime bill, led by justice minister Rob Nicholson, is the first salvo in an ambitious tough-on-crime agenda that critics say will cost a lot and do little to deter offenders. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Parliament passed the Conservative government's controversial omnibus crime bill March 12, the first in a series of anti-crime measures the majority government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vowed to introduce.

Bill C-10, formerly known as the Safe Streets and Communities Act, encompasses several different pieces of legislation. 

Opposition parties, professionals working within the corrections and justice systems, the Canadian Bar Association and various other interest groups have raised wide-ranging concerns about the legislation. Below is an overview of some of their objections.

Mandatory minimums

By far the most criticized aspect of the bill is the introduction of mandatory jail sentences for certain crimes, including drug trafficking, sex crimes, child exploitation and some violent offences. Opponents of the measures have argued that this type of sentencing has been tried in other jurisdictions, most notably in the U.S., and has created more problems than it has solved.

Critics say that coupled with other changes in the bill, such as increases in the maximum sentences handed down to some drug offenders and sexual predators and elimination of conditional sentences in some cases, mandatory minimums will burden Canada's prison and court systems in ways that are unfeasible, untenable and have little benefit.

In particular, they argue that mandatory minimum sentences will:

  • Increase the costs of prosecuting and incarcerating offenders and leave fewer funds for rehabilitation programs.
  • Lead to overcrowding in prisons.
  • Remove judges' discretion to tailor sentences to the specifics of a particular case and offender and force them to apply blanket, one-size-fits-all sentences regardless of circumstances.
  • Limit the use of alternate sentencing measures of the type currently applied to aboriginal offenders.
  • Disproportionately punish small-time drug offenders and have limited effect on the drug producers, organized crime bosses and serious drug traffickers the government says it wants to target.
  • Have little rehabilitative effect on offenders and rather leave them more, not less, likely to re-offend. Critics point to numerous studies showing harsher incarceration laws do not have a deterrent effect on criminals or lower crime rates.
  • Violate provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and open up the government to legal challenges on grounds that the sentencing rules violate certain rights that offenders have under the Charter, such as the right to liberty, the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and the right to equal protection and benefit of the law. 

Fewer conditional sentences

The legislation will eliminate conditional sentences, those served in the community or under house arrest, for a range of crimes, including sexual assault, manslaughter, arson, drug trafficking, kidnapping and fraud or theft over $5,000. It will also eliminate double credit for time already served.

Critics say these changes will:

  • Cost the federal and provincial justice and corrections systems millions of additional dollars a year. The parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, has estimated that the average cost per offender will rise from approximately $2,600 to $41,000 as a consequence of the elimination of conditional sentences.
  • Lead to more trials as those accused of crimes will be less likely to plead guilty if they know there is no chance they will get a conditional sentence and will be more likely to take their chances on a trial. Some have predicted this will lead to greater backlogs in an already backlogged court system.
  • Result in more parole hearings. Page's analysis predicted that with the increase in the number of incarcerations, there will be more offenders coming up for parole, which will increase costs for federal and provincial parole review boards. A single review by the Parole Board of Canada costs an estimated $4,289, Page estimated.

Harsher sentences for young offenders

Changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act will impose tougher sentences for violent and repeat young offenders, make it easier to keep such offenders in custody prior to trial and expand the definition of what is considered a "violent offence" to include "creating a substantial likelihood of causing bodily harm" rather than just causing, attempting to cause or threatening to cause bodily harm.

The new legislation will also require the Crown to consider adult sentences for offenders convicted of "serious violent offences" and require judges to consider lifting the publication ban on names of offenders convicted of "violent offences" even when they have been given youth sentences.

Some of the concerns around these provisions raised by some of the professionals who work with young offenders include:

  • The publication of names of some young offenders will unjustly stigmatize them for life. Quebec has asked that provinces be allowed to opt out of this provision.
  • The changes shift the emphasis of the Act from rehabilitation to "protection of society," which critics say will put the focus on punishing young offenders rather than steering them away from a life of crime. Quebec, in particular, which prides itself on the success of the rehabilitative aspects of its youth justice system, has argued for stronger language prioritizing rehabilitation.
  • Stiffer, longer sentences will turn young offenders into hardened criminals and undermine any potential for rehabilitation.
  • As with other parts of the crime bill, critics says harsher sentencing rules and increased emphasis on incarceration will disproportionately affect aboriginal and black Canadians, who are already over-represented in the criminal justice system.