Lawyers took federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson to task for his party’s tough-on-crime agenda during a question-and-answer session at the Canadian Bar Association’s annual conference in Niagara Falls, Ont., last week.
But a defiant Nicholson held firm throughout while insisting that harsher sentences and changes to the Criminal Code are necessary to maintain public confidence in the justice system.
Nicholson spearheaded the Truth in Sentencing Act, which ended two-for-one credit for pretrial detention. The government has also eliminated conditional sentences for crimes involving serious personal injuries and has vowed to continue the push to toughen up the Criminal Code in other areas.
Former CBA president Thomas Heintzman, who is now a Law Society of Upper Canada bencher, challenged Nicholson on the effectiveness of those measures.
“I’m concerned about the whole incarceration policy of your government,” Heintzman said. “It seems to me more and more crimes are being created, and people are being sent to jail for longer and longer periods. That policy hasn’t worked anywhere else I’m aware of, and I can’t see it working in Canada.”
Simon Borys, a law student at Queen’s University, wanted to know why Nicholson’s government has focused so much of its resources on jails in a climate of fiscal restraint when crime rates are declining.
A recent assessment by the parliamentary budget officer estimated the Truth in Sentencing Act would more than double the cost of running the prison system within five years to $9.5 billion from $4.4 billion.
“I think Canada is a relatively safe country,” said Borys, a former police officer. “Would we be better off focusing on rehabilitation programs?”
But Nicholson hit back, saying the government hasn’t received credit for its national anti-drug and crime-prevention strategies. He branded existing provisions of the Criminal Code as being “inept’ in some cases and reinforced his plans to continue making changes where he sees fit.
So far, new offences have targeted crimes that include drive-by shootings, reckless shooting, and identity theft. Still to come are provisions designed to snare more people involved in the organized theft and resale of vehicles in Canada.
“We can’t leave the Criminal Code stuck in the 1890s,” Nicholson said. “Police tell me the provisions of the Criminal Code are not catching the sophistication that is taking place by people who are part of organized crime. We have to keep pace with that so that we capture everyone involved.”
Nicholson also plans to press ahead with plans to repeal the faint hope clause for murderers serving life sentences. “People tell me they are victimized over and over when that 15-year period arrives and they have to make representations,” he said. “We’ve taken this approach because we want victims to feel that their justice system works.”
Nicholson said sentencing rules need to change in order to keep Canadians’ faith in the justice system alive and argued Parliament has a duty to guide the courts on the seriousness with which they should treat crimes.
“Public confidence erodes when law-abiding people watch individuals found guilty receiving sentences that do not reflect the severity of their crimes,” he said, brushing off concerns about the cost of the approach.
“There is a cost to protecting Canadians, but most of the costs are borne by victims of crime.”
Loreley Berra, a member of the CBA’s Saskatchewan branch, raised concerns that rigid rules would exacerbate the overrepresentation of aboriginals in the justice system by limiting the options available to judges in sentencing.
She noted she comes into contact with a disproportionate number of aboriginals during the course of her work as a Crown prosecutor and is “perplexed” about how the new sentencing rules would fit with Gladue principles.
“There are alternatives within the aboriginal justice system, and the success rate is there,” Nicholson said, touting other government strategies that address the issue.
Nicholson also came under fire for the Conservative government’s failure to do more on legal aid funding, its refusal to demand Omar Khadr’s repatriation, and its decision to prorogue Parliament. At the same time, Montreal lawyer Simon Potter accused the government of lacking respect for the authority of Parliament.
But Nicholson defended the government’s right to appeal the Khadr issue all the way to the Supreme Court and trumpeted his own role in brokering the deal that allowed MPs access to Afghan detainee documents after a ruling by the Speaker of the House.
“We came to an agreement with two of the three opposition parties, which shows the system works,” Nicholson said. “We are committed to the parliamentary system.”
For more on the CBA conference, see Nicholson offers lot of words, little substance, In-house counsel seeking lawyers as project managers, and Is bilingualism merely a hobby?
For video of the CBA conference, click here.