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Crime bills provoke unlikely co-operation

|Written By Tim Naumetz

OTTAWA – An unlikely alliance of Crown and defence lawyers has shaped up in the confines of Canada’s Senate.

The two sides have shed their robes as courtroom foes to share witness space at the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee and point out what they say will be the downsides of the government’s proposed crime laws, including bill C-15 that will set mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.

 “Bill C-15 will significantly increase the trial rates with respect to these particular charges, reduce the guilty pleas, and equate into higher workload, which must be supported by the resources,” says Jamie Chaffe, president of the Canadian Association of Crown Counsel.

“If it is not supported by the resources, then these prosecutions will come at the expense of other prosecutions of other criminal offences. When we’re talking about adding criminal justice resources, we’re talking about the infrastructure, which includes Crowns, legal aid funding, probation, parole, and corrections, as well as the judiciary.”

Besides concerns over the drug law, lawyers have also been expressing their views on Bill C-25, which amends the Criminal Code to limit credit for time spent in custody before sentencing to one day for each day in remand, down from the Supreme Court of Canada benchmark of two days’ credit for each day of pre-sentence custody.

Only in circumstances that “justify it” could a judge award more credit to a maximum of 11/2 days for each day in remand.

A string of witnesses lined up to question the new limits, citing deplorable and overcrowded conditions at most provincial remand centres as well as the unfair result the change could have on some inmates since pre-sentencing dead time is not credited for parole purposes.

Despite the criticism, all or most of the crime legislation the government is advancing will likely pass through the Senate.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has been under relentless pressure from Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, both of whom regularly accuse him and his party of being “soft on crime.”

To blunt the attack, Ignatieff last week ordered his Senate leadership to ensure enough Liberal senators were absent for a vote on the C-25 amendments to allow the Tories to defeat them, a Liberal source says.

The Liberal changes would have set credit for pre-sentence custody at 11/2 days for each day served with a maximum of two days under justifying circumstances.

But they went down to defeat in a little-noticed vote last Tuesday, and the Liberals allowed the bill to pass through to royal assent by Thursday.

The vote was a sign that all of the Harper government’s 12 other bills on a range of justice issues - including an end to conditional sentencing for property and serious crimes - will eventually become law.

Under bill C-15, for example, the courts would impose mandatory minimum sentences for a range of drug possession, production, and trafficking offences. The changes include a mandatory minimum sentence of six months if an individual is convicted of growing more than five and less than 201 marijuana plants for the purpose of trafficking.

The minimum would be set at nine months for the same amount of marijuana if any of a series of health and safety threats is associated with the production, including a potential hazard to anyone under 18 where the drug was being grown or a public safety hazard in a residential area.

If the number of plants is more than 200 but less than 501, the mandatory minimum would be one year in prison. That increases to a minimum of 18 months if health and safety risks are associated with the production.

If the production is more than 500 plants, the mandatory minimum increases to two years or three years if any of the health and safety risks are present at the production site.

The Canadian Association of Crown Counsel told the Senate committee both the drug and dead-time bills would inevitably lead to pressure on the courts and overcrowded prisons.

Although it was acknowledged the new C-25 limit on credit for time served will likely prompt a rise in the number of early guilty pleas and thereby reduce the number of prisoners in remand, it was also argued that courts will be under severe strain to schedule earlier appearances and processing for accused who plead guilty.

At the same time, the mandatory minimums for drug offences will also place a burden on the courts as accused will be unable to reduce sentences through plea bargaining.

Chaffe, who testified at the Senate committee on both bills on behalf of the Crown counsel association, explains he wasn’t taking a position for or against them.

“We’re not opposing anything,” he says. “All we’re talking about is what will practically happen on the ground if they are brought in.”


    So let me get this straight, You can rape 5 kids and get one month in prison but if you grow 5 plants you go to jail for 9 months + hash charges, + oil charges, + potentially you have children, + you're within 1 mile of a school, + you rent = 25 - life?? When did I get transported to the bizaro world?
  • Prison Industrial Complex

    Harper knows that mandatory minimums won't deter crime, and he knows Bill C-15 will result in the need to build more prisons, maybe private prisons, maybe that is his goal (aside from appearing "tough on drugs" for political advantage).

    Harper already has the support of police unions (e.g. Canadian Police Association), the most powerful lobby groups on Parliament Hill. (*see news article headlines)

    The creation of a private prison industry in Canada will in turn come with a union that can be relied upon (because their livelihood depends on it) to support Conservative "tough on crime" initiatives. The more inmate$ the better.

    Maybe Harper is building another base of support for the future.

    After all, police and prison unions will fight any legislation that threatens their members' job security.



    P.S. Some related articles from the past few years.

    [*Links available at: ]

    Harper urges police pressure on crime bills

    Harper Wrong To Ask Police To Lobby

    Tories 'pander' to the interests of police: critics

    Police get say in judge selection - Law-and-order representatives will sit on judicial advisory committees

    Harper admits he's picking judges to advance Tory law-and-order aims

    Public Safety warning that Tories' crime laws won't work was ignored - Mandatory prison terms ineffective, lawyers told new justice minister

    Privatization guru to review federal prison system

    U.S. has say in Tory drug strategy

    U.S. district attorney has advice for Canada: don't emulate U.S. drug laws
  • lawyer

    peter kirby
    I and other colleagues from our area wrote the Justice Committee on C-25 complaining that the Bill does nothing to serve Gladue principles--which seek to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal people behind bars.

    One can only despair at a government which lacks fiscal sense (witness the growth of the prison industry in places like California) and moral restraint.

    In a climate of government deficit and a decreasing crime rate and a movement towards restorative justice systems, the Harper government's crime legislation is purely driven by an ideology of vengance.
  • Crime Bills

    Sandra Colasanti
    Mandatory minimums would be great for pedophiles, rapists and as previously commented, any violent crime offenders. It would be a sad day to have any of these types of offenders not be in jail where as someone who grows 5 plants is in mandatory min. A lot of these pot growers are also parents. What about the damage throwing these children into the foster system that is already over burdened. do you think those children will grow up respecting the system.
  • Harper dragging Canada backwards on drug policy

    * The Conservatives have yet to provide *any* studies to sustain their claim that mandatory minimum sentences will deter criminals.

    * A 2002 Justice Dept study on MMS concluded that mandatory minimum sentences ineffective, especially in relation to drug crimes.

    * The U.S. is ahead of Canada in terms of advancement in cannabis law reform, and other countries, such as Portugal and Mexica, have made bigger advances still.

    * Two-thirds of Canadians want cannabis law reform while Harper is quickly dragging Canada backwards on cannabis policy with his draconian legislation.

    Bill C-15 Info...

    Bill C-15: Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Cannabis Offences

  • lawyer

    Keith A.
    The imposing of minimum sentences is unfortunately intended to remove judicial discretion. This whole hard or soft on crime labeling thing is childish and simplistically ignores the individual circumstances of each case that judges properly consider when exercising their discretion. Judges, not MPs, should be determining appropriate sentencing ranges.
  • Crime Bills

    David Dickinson
    How about getting tough on VIOLENT CRIME? The commission of a violent crime, including vehicular homicide, while under the influence of alcohol should draw a minimum sentence of one year, and if a fatality occurs, five years. The government should have some compassion for victims of violence, but is doing absolutely nothing to fight violence. Fifty per cent of spousal assaults occur under the influence of alcohol. Nobody beats up their wife after smoking a joint!
  • Manditory minimums = cruel & unusual punnishment

    Dustin Slade
    When are the liberals gonna stop taking crap from the conservatives. Senators should vote the way they want.
    Being non-elected members, they don't worry about their image of being "soft on crime" whatever that means. They need to protect Canadians from unjust laws. Simply doing what the government asks of them would make their jobs useless. They need to be SMART on crime. Drugs are illegal and yet more people partake that ever. You cannot stop the sun from shining, you cannot stop people from getting and using drugs. Any law that has been broken by the majority of the public is bad policy and should not be enforced. The senate special committee on illegal drugs states: "cannabis is widely used in every part of the world, does not have the harmful effects ascribed to it, and poses little risk to public health. Consequently, it in no way deserves to be included in the convention schedules that list what are supposed to be the most dangerous drugs. Cannabis even has therapeutic uses recognized by Canadian courts. For the above reasons, we recommend that Canada notify the international community of its intent to seek the declassification of cannabis as part of a public health approach that would include stringent monitoring and evaluation." and " The international classifications of drugs are arbitrary and do not reflect the level of danger those substances represent to health or to society."
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