Liberal justice: Experts expect less punitive, more principled approach to crime

Experts hope the new Liberal government will steer Canada on a criminal justice course that is less punitive and more effective than the Conservatives' "tough-on-crime" agenda.

Legalizing pot, repealing parts of anti-terror law and reviewing sentencing regime on agenda

Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau has a full plate of promises when it comes to reforming Canada's criminal justice system. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Experts hope the new Liberal government will steer Canada on a criminal justice course that is less punitive and more effective than the Conservatives' "tough-on-crime" agenda.

From stripping away some harsh mandatory sentences, to legalizing marijuana, to reforming prison and parole policies, criminologists expect "big changes" are on the way. Mary Campbell, who retired in 2013 as director general of the corrections and criminal justice section of Public Safety Canada, is one who hopes to see long-term improvements to public safety with laws that respect the charter and policies that are based on solid research.

Under Stephen Harper's watch, Canada underwent a fundamental shift from being a principled, human rights-based system to an "ideological grab bag of repression and meanness," Campbell said. The system moved from an international model to one "swimming against the tide."

"The Conservatives had a bit of a vision, but it was just a sentiment of nastiness," Campbell told CBC News. "One of the symptoms was the endless bills in Parliament; ad hoc, disconnected and contradictory. Overall, what we're all looking for, and legitimately expecting to see, is a more humane and effective justice system."

The road ahead for the incoming Liberal government will include repealing some Conservative laws, including those around tightened parole and restricted pardons. Campbell also hopes an "attitude shift" will grant judges discretion over mandatory minimum sentences.

The next justice minister will also need to "take stock" of the series of constitutional challenges to legislation now before the courts, and decide which ones to proceed with and which ones to drop.

Tories tough on crime

Prof. Anthony Doob, a criminologist at the University of Toronto, said the Conservatives used crime bills as a "favourite toy" to appeal to a core group of Canadians. Often, it seemed that the only intent of the bill was to convey a "tough-on-crime" message.

By his count, the Conservatives tabled a total of 94 crime bills, and only passed 42 of them into law.

"The most cynical interpretation of what they were doing is that they really didn't give a shit about the Criminal Code and the criminal law," Doob said. "They would introduce things that created a certain amount of incoherence, but which did absolutely nothing except give them a photo opportunity."

In addition to undoing some old laws and tabling new ones, Doob hopes the new Liberal government will tackle some of the fundamental problems slowing down and driving up costs in the justice system, such as the broken bail system.

As the new government moves ahead on the justice file, one of the challenges will be fighting back the "soft-on-crime" label that dogged the Liberals under Jean Chrétien and has been used by the Tories to counter criticism.

Sharon Rosenfeldt, who founded the advocacy group Victims of Violence with her late husband Gary after their 16-year-old son Daryn was murdered by serial killer Clifford Olson in 1981, is taking a "wait and see" approach, but she doesn't expect the work to help victims will be undone.

She praised the outgoing Conservatives for making key and lasting reforms.

"The Conservatives definitely passed some pieces of legislation that we had been advocating for for years," she said. "They are stronger, and they're not afraid to pass what some might see to be controversial legislation."

Victims praise Conservatives

Rosenfeldt applauded the repeal of the controversial "faint-hope clause," which gave even the most serious criminals the chance to apply for parole after 15 years. She also praised tighter laws around mentally ill offenders found not criminally responsible, consecutive sentences for multiple murders and the federal victims' bill of rights.

The Liberal platform includes several justice-related planks, including a federal strategy and action plan to support survivors of domestic violence and measures to get handguns and assault weapons out of the hands of criminals.

One of the items on the Liberal justice agenda is to legalize and regulate marijuana. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

But one of the most talked about was Trudeau's pledge to repeal key elements of the controversial anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51, to guarantee civil liberties and strengthen oversight for security agencies.

Errol Mendes, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said implementing those changes could be the first big test for the Liberal government.

"They will have that challenge to live up to, that promise to overhaul C-51, especially in those areas where the evidence shows it goes too far and is not necessary for achieving the balance between national security and civil liberties," he said.

Another huge challenge will be to execute the pledge to legalize marijuana. Mendes said it will take much time and consultation to map out a plan to regulate and tax pot.

"I would think it would take the next year or so, maybe longer, to study what other jurisdictions have done it properly and which have not," he said. "They'll be looking at what to adopt and what not to adopt. It will be a major part of the criminal justice reform and involve a fair amount of consultation not just domestically, but internationally."

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