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Lawyers assail crime agenda

|Written By Michael McKiernan

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.

‘We can’t leave the Criminal Code stuck in the 1890s,’ Rob Nicholson told a CBA audience 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.

  • Tough on violent crime

    David Dickinson
    I would like to see the CBA lobby for tougher sentences against alcohol-induced violent crime. Although the outright prohibition of alcohol is impractical, the same cannot be said for bringing in mandatory minimum jail sentences for violent alcoholics who do others harm.

    Whether or not this has any effect on the crime rate is basically irrelevant. The point is that the victims of alcohol-induced violence deserve justice. As a victim of alcohol, I can tell you that the justice system as it now stands is a joke. It infuriates me to see small-time marijuana dealers being sent to jail while violent drunks who have actually hurt people go free. There is a lot of anger among the victims of alcohol, and it would be in the best interests of the perpetrators that they be sent to jail for a long time so that the victims can't get at them.

    Nicholson is making our country more dangerous by ignoring the victims of alcohol-induced violent crime and instead siding with the perpetrators of violence.

    Which side is the CBA on? Thank you.
  • Nicholson

    Alex L
    I sincerely hope theres an election this fall so we can finally deal with this Harper/Nicholson problem. They are spending our money in all the wrong places.

    Nicholson talks about ensuring fair sentences and trust in the justice system. Of course everyone will agree to support those things. But did he actually show anything to explain exactly how he thinks Bill S-10 and the new definitions for serious offenses and "organized crime" will actually catch any more serious, violent offenders? It sounds to me like we will be dealing with many more small time drug offenders clogging up the system.

    Why can't they just save us all some time/money/energy and regulate drugs?
  • Minister Held Firm To What?

    Simon Borys
    The Minister may have held firm, but to what, I'm not sure. Having been one of the people who asked him a question, I was somewhat annoyed at not receiving a response. In fact, the Minister answered my question, and others, at length, without ever saying much on point.

    This may have become so common place with politicians that people hardly bat an eye at it, but I don't think that makes it acceptable.

    My question was about how, in the Minister's opinion, the government could justify spending billions of our limited dollars to put more people in prisons for longer during a time when the government's own statistics show a declining crime rate.

    In his 90 second response, the Minister did not mention the word prison once.

    At the end of it I said, "Thank you Minister, but my question was actually about the prisons." But of course, they had turned the microphone off.
  • Lawyers assail crime agenda

    Lucretia Martenet
    Good going! This bill is a crazy attempt to model us after failed US 'justice'. If you look at the situation w/ Legal Aid and its lack of funding, it is especially unworkable and unjust.
  • I was there at the CBA

    And Nicholson made me puke all over the place. It is pathetic when I hear them say we need to update the Criminal Code when all they do is to bring us back to Middle Age!!!
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