Crime bill falls short for victims, ombudsman says

The federal ombudsman for victims of crime says Canada needs to focus more on the rights of victims and less on offenders.

Omnibus crime bill 'doesn't go far enough'

Federal ombudsman for the victims of crime, Sue O'Sullivan, has released a report calling for more support and respect for victims. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada needs to focus more on the rights of victims and less on offenders, and the omnibus crime bill doesn't do enough to shift the focus, the country's top advocate for victims said Thursday.

Sue O'Sullivan, the federal ombudsman for victims of crime, released a report that contains a number of recommendations to improve the treatment of victims in the criminal justice system.

"All aspects of the justice continuum are important, but the time has come in this country to take a step back and look at not only how we're managing offenders, but how we are treating victims," she told a news conference in Ottawa.

Victims often don't feel respected or listened to, and the system often re-victimizes them, O'Sullivan said. They need more access to information about their rights and their offenders, increased support, and better participation in the justice system, she said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has tried to portray his party as the one that stands up for victims, and getting tough on crime has been a cornerstone of Conservative platforms. The safe streets and communities act, now in the hands of the Senate, is aimed at holding criminals accountable and protecting victims, according to the government.

The omnibus bill, introduced in the fall after the Conservatives won their first majority government, combines nine previous bills that were never passed.

It has caused controversy because of the changes it proposes to the corrections and justice systems, and the costs the provinces are expecting as a result of increased prison populations.

Nunavut Justice Minister Daniel Shewchuk was among the witnesses at the Senate committee studying the bill Thursday and he said the proposed legislation would overburden the courts and corrections system and divert resources from rehabilitation programs.

Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, also testified and said while he supports the bill he also was concerned about its cost. He said police budgets are already "close to the breaking point."

When defending the bill against critics, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson have said the cost to federal and provincial budgets is far outweighed by the cost of crime to society and the psychological cost to victims.

O'Sullivan said Bill C-10 addresses some of the recommendations in her report, "but it doesn't go far enough."

"We've made what we think are very practical and reasonable recommendations for the government to implement in order to further enhance these," she said.

She has met with Toews and Nicholson about her report and said she was encouraged by the meeting.

Rights for victims still limited

O'Sullivan said Canada has come a long way in protecting the rights of victims but that most Canadians would probably be surprised to learn how limited they still are.

Victims, for example, don't have the automatic right to attend parole hearings and have to apply like every other member of the public. If they want to read a statement it has to be pre-approved and they cannot stray from it during the meeting. No transcripts or audio recordings of the meeting are made available to victims who cannot attend and it is rare for a videoconference to be facilitated, according to O'Sullivan.

More financial support for victims should be available, the ombudsman said. Most compensation issues are dealt with at the provincial level, but federally, the victim surcharge and restitution are two mechanisms designed to help victims and hold criminals accountable.

O'Sullivan said the surcharge is often waived with no explanation, and restitution, which is ordered at the discretion of the courts, is underused and poorly enforced.

"Offenders should be held accountable, period," said O'Sullivan. 

The victim surcharge is a maximum of $100, and her office wants it doubled and made mandatory with no exceptions.

The ombudsman's report was raised in question period Thursday by NDP MP Francoise Boivin, who said the government's approach to crime and victims "makes no sense" and it should be doing more to act on the recommendations.

Nicholson responded that the Conservatives were the ones to create the ombudsman's office for victims in the first place and that he is "proud to be a member of the only party that will do the right thing by vics in this county."

With files from Canadian Press