Crime bill splits witnesses at Commons committee

MPs on the House of Commons justice committee heard arguments for and against the government's omnibus crime bill Tuesday.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson spoke to the Canadian Bar Association annual meeting this summer. Representatives of the organization criticized the government's omnibus crime bill Tuesday while appearing before a Commons committee. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

A parliamentary committee studying the Conservative government’s controversial omnibus crime bill heard conflicting testimony Tuesday about whether it will do more harm than good.

Members of Parliament on the justice and human rights committee heard from a number of witnesses who were for and against Bill C-10, the Safe Streets and Communities Act.

One called the government's actions "undemocratic" while another said critics shouldn't be concerned about its cost because of its protection for victims of crime.

The bill combines nine pieces of legislation that were introduced in previous sessions of Parliament but not passed before the spring election. Among its measures are tougher sentences for some drug offences and sexual offences against children, stiffer sentences for young offenders, limiting access to conditional sentences for certain offences and other changes to the parole and corrections systems.

Victim advocates support bill

Susan Sullivan, federal ombudsman for crime victims, and Sharon Rosenfeldt, president of a group called Victims of Violence, advocated in favour of the bill because of its measures designed to empower victims.

Sullivan told the committee, however, that she wants the proposed legislation to go even further and urged them to amend it so more measures can be added.

"In the current system, the imbalance between offenders' and victims' rights is stark and unjust. Providing victims with more actual legislative rights will help to address this," said Sullivan.

Rosenfeldt, whose son was murdered, tried to debunk the arguments posed by those opposed to the bill, particularly about its cost.

"When I hear opposition about the cost of the government’s crime legislation it upsets me greatly," she told the committee. "How do you put a pricetag on our pain as victims or on our children’s lives?"

But MPs also heard from witnesses who are not in favour of some of the bill's measures, or how the Conservatives are handling the legislation. They've promised to pass the omnibus bill within 100 sitting days of Parliament and argue only limited time is needed for its examination at committee because many of its measures have been studied before.

Rush to pass bill 'undemocratic'

Eric Gottardi, vice-chair of the Canadian Bar Association's national criminal justice section, testified that the bill represents a "significant shift" in the country's justice and penal systems and that the time allotted to MPs to examine it is "entirely insufficient."

"It is, in our respectful view, undemocratic," he said. Gottardi also said that the Safe Streets Act will do the very opposite of what its name implies.

"In addition to our concerns about process, we believe that the substance of this legislation will ultimately be self-defeating and counter-productive if the goal is to enhance public safety," he said.

A lot of opposition to Bill C-10 relates to new mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes because they will mean an increased prison population that has a number of consequences.

Anthony Doob, a criminologist at the University of Toronto, said it is "absolutely clear" that an increased prison population will mean an increased crime rate.

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said the proposed legislation will exacerbate overcrowding in prisons and impede the successful re-integration of offenders in society.

Don Head, commissioner of Canada's corrections system, was also among the witnesses Tuesday and said there are some issues with overcrowding in some parts of the country.

He said that due to the anticipated increased prison population, Correctional Service of Canada is planning to spend $25 million in capital costs to expand facilities, and $34 million in total – over five years – with added operating costs to maintain more prisoners.

Head did not raise any major concerns about the bill's impact on the organization he leads, its employees, or the costs associated with it.

"I am confident that CSC, as a modern, adaptable world-class correctional system, will implement the provisions of Bill C-10 and create safer communities for all Canadians while addressing the needs of victims and providing the most appropriate opportunities for offenders," he said.