Justice Minister Nicholson Pushes Crime Bill He Used to be Against

Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, who is pushing the government’s tough on crime agenda and plans to revive the bill on mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes in the next Parliamentary session, did not support the proposed law when he was a Mulroney backbencher.

In 1988, Mr. Nicholson vice-chaired a Parliamentary committee that released a report recommending mandatory minimum sentences not be used, except in the case of repeat violent sexual offenders. The committee found, based on testimony and the U.S. experience, that the law didn’t work and increases prison populations.

The report, titled “Taking Responsibility,” cited many of the same arguments that led Liberal Senators today to make amendments to the bill, which died on the Order Paper when Parliament was prorogued on Dec. 30 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.), although Mr. Nicholson has said it would be reintroduced in its original form when Parliament returns on March 3.

It noted that sentencing guidelines, which remove some of the discretionary powers of judges, “have had the undesirable effect of contributing to rapidly increasing prison populations in the United States.” Additionally, it said that both witnesses and committee members doubt the effectiveness and have reservations about the social and financial costs of mandatory minimum sentences, noting they tend to increase court time because defendants fight harder to avoid conviction, as well as causing “distortions” in charging practices and plea negotiations.

Witnesses appearing before the House of Commons and Senate committees studying Bill C-15 said overwhelmingly that mandatory minimum sentences are ineffective in deterring drug-related crimes, and a 2001 government report done by the Justice Department reached the same conclusions.

The bill would require anyone found with as few as five marijuana plants to serve a minimum of six months in prison, with one and two-year minimum sentences for other drug-related offences.

Geneviève Breton, Mr. Nicholson’s (Niagara Falls, Ont.) director of communications, said in an email to The Hill Times that the justice system and the drug world are different than they were 22 years ago, and therefore the government’s response has also changed.

She noted that the Criminal Code contains a total of 43 offences that carry a mandatory minimum sentence, mostly for firearm and child exploitation offences, but in recent years the Harper government has added to the list.

“Parliament is expected to draft and enact laws that clearly articulate the legislators’ intent, which is reflective of the values of the citizens who elected them. It is the role of the legislator to give guidance to the judiciary on maximum penalties, as well as on minimum penalties. For certain offences, our Government firmly believes that a minimum period of incarceration is justified,” Ms. Breton stated.

Former PC MP David Daubney, now a public servant at the Department of Justice, was chair of the committee that authored the 1988 report, which is sometimes referred to as the “Daubney Report.” He said Mr. Nicholson’s views on mandatory minimum sentences today are clearly different from those in the report to which he was a signatory.

“I’m proud of the report, frankly, it was well-received and still is being used in law schools and other places as a well-received blueprint. But times change, and public opinion changes, and governments change,” he said.

Mr. Daubney cited a recent Angus Reid poll, which indicated Canadians’ attitudes on justice issues are hardening, as a possible motive for Mr. Nicholson’s change of heart. The poll found that 65 per cent of respondents had a moderate or strong feeling that mandatory minimum sentences send a tough message to criminals, and that 62 per cent supported the death penalty for those convicted of murder. This even though crime rates in Canada have been steadily falling for three decades.

The Conservative government introduced 17 justice bills in the last session, and the they have made law and order issues a central plank of their agenda. Last week, Mr. Nicholson announced he would be putting forward proposals to stiffen penalties for youth offenders.

The justice minister has repeatedly lashed out at the Liberals, both in the House and in the media, for what he calls the gutting of Bill C-15 by Grit Senators, even though the bill was passed in the House with Liberal support. Many in the Liberal caucus have said they are uncomfortable with the measures in the bill, but there is a fear within the party of being labeled “soft on crime.”

Last week Tory MP Brent Rathgeber (Edmonton-St. Albert, Alta.), who sits on the House of Commons Justice Committee, put out a press release attacking statements by Liberal MP Rob Oliphant (Don Valley West, Ont.) that his caucus was grappling with whether to continue their support of all the government’s crime legislation.

NDP MP Libby Davies (Vancouver East, B.C.), whose party voted against Bill C-15, said Mr. Nicholson’s zest for introducing mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes is purely political.

“This has got to be an evidence-based process, and of course he couldn’t show any. All he could say was that he believed that Canadians wanted this legislation. To discover a Parliamentary report that he was a signatory to that comes to the same conclusion that we have, that mandatory minimums don’t work for drug crimes, I think that’s very incredible. It’s reinforcement that what they are doing is not based on any evidence whatsoever. It’s a political stance that they’re taking that has nothing to do with solving Canada’s serious drug issues. It’s a politically fabricated response. It’s fascinating to see that back in 1988 he obviously came to a more objective conclusion,” she said.

Liberal justice critic Dominic LeBlanc (Beauséjour, N.B.) said he agrees with some of what is in Bill C-15, but voiced concerns about the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. He said his caucus has not yet decided whether they would continue their support of the bill.

Mr. LeBlanc mused that perhaps the discrepancy between Mr. Nicholson’s 1988 report and his position today is because of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) preference for “American style solutions” to drug crime.

The Globe and Mail recently reported the government plans to increase the size, and budget for federal prisons in order to make way for the flood of new inmates resulting from the new crime bills. The annual budget for prisons has grown from $88.5-million in 2006-07 to $195.1-million this year, and is projected to reach $211.6-million in 2010-11.

At this point the government is refusing to say how much its crime legislation would cost the justice system, but Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page will release a report examining the expected expenditures in the coming months.

– Article from The Hill Times.



  1. Anonymous on

    “The annual budget for prisons has grown from $88.5-million in 2006-07 to $195.1-million this year, and is projected to reach $211.6-million in 2010-11.”

    This doesn’t include the cost of enforcement — paying for the police, prosecutors, and courtrooms, court staff, probation officers etc. We are in a recession because of the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on punishing people who have not hurt anyone. How is this in keeping with conservative values? These guys say they are against big government, but the evidence says otherwise. The Conservatives are NOT fiscally conservative at all!

  2. George lenard on

    Harper’s gambling that the more then enough voters out there that if they voted would send Harper and the Neo Right Party the political blow that is so well deserved. If and a big if it is, as voter apathy is what is killing democracy in Canada! Harper is just taking political advantage of it.

  3. Anonymous on

    With all the canna heads in Ca why hasn’t somebody just shot this guy yet?? You always hear about serial killers and rapist why cant their be a conservative political serial killer ?? When will I be so lucky. In America we have the right to bear arms and it was put in the constitution for cases just like this. When the big evil govt gets out of control, that means its time for us to take control. TAKE THE POWER BACK!!!

  4. Cannabis "criminal" on

    It’s a common practice for democratic governments to rattle their “tough on crime” agendas in order to gain voter sympathy.

    They need patsies to punish to gain the image as upright lawmakers with the “victim’s rights” in mind. (ignoring that marijuana plant growth is victimless)

    It’s easy to arrest and incarcerate non-violent marijuana offenders while making a big show of doing it.

    This pleases people who are rightly tired of all the violent crime that they see reported. They make no distinction about what “crimes” are being punished, because in their fear and outrage they move towards a “hang ’em high” attitude.

    We know that most politicians of all varieties think only of being elected and reelected. If a few don’t their party whip will pound them into submission to the party line.

    So, they could care less about the social harm of their policies vs the perception. If 90% of voters loudly proclaimed they wanted legal marijuana even these fools would give in to it if they thought it meant votes to satisfy their desperate hunger for power over others.

    So, you have to go to jail because it’s easy to put you there. It won’t be long before they get their warrant-less ability to spy on all communication passed, and then you and I speaking this way on a web forum will be investigated by some needle-dicked screw with nothing better to do. If you say “I grow weed” they’ll have your IP addy and you might get a visit.

    I’m a “criminal” now after I was charged with marijuana production and traffic. I have a home arrest/curfew situation which will last for the rest of the year. I’d be in jail for almost 2 years with Bill c-15 in place.

    I will not commit suicide. I will continue to try to gain viable employment and if I cannot, then I’ll be growing again. I’ll never stop, if only for a similar reason to your desire to produce my own supply. If our government wants to shell out 75K a year to make me sit in a small room and think about how I loathe their society, then I guess I’ll sit there.

    I won’t give in. I won’t rest my case to be left to my own freedom of choice and civil liberty to choose what I put into my own body.

    Don’t forget that the Bill c-15, which will pass if the Liberals don’t suddenly and unexpectedly grow some balls, is supposed to be for “traffic” offenses only, so you might not face mandatory jail if you keep your weed to yourself. Don’t forget though that passing a joint is defined as “traffic”.

  5. TAS on

    Why does this goverment want me in jail for? Iam 50 yrs. old raised two great childeren into adulthood who are responsbile citizens. I work and pay my taxes. I help under privledge kids (been doing it for 20yrs.),and iam a voter.Igrow my own weed so not to support the cartels. Iam a non-volent man who has been married to a wonderful wife for 29yrs., yet my goverment wants to take and destroy all of this. For what? Putting me behind bars is not going to make the streets of Canada safer.All this will do is kill me. I would rather commit suicide then be living in prison.At age 50 iam to old to start over in life.After prison i would have no home , no job , not paying taxes. I would end up on walfare because nobody going to hire a criminal. SO suicide is better then bing a criminal.

  6. Anonymous on

    Typical politician. In it for his reputation to the prime minister.

    It sickens me, but the reality of it is, it will always be like that with most politicians on the governing side.

  7. Anonymous on

    $123.1 million just for the prisons alone. That is already craziness aside from the evilness behind C-15.

    Nicholson is running this county into the ground and everyone is just letting him!

    Does Mr. Nicholson think that the American justice system is a good system to mimic? If so, it should be very apparent that the American justice system works. Uh oh.