Lawyers and judges on the front lines of the criminal justice system pleaded with the federal justice minister Monday to tone down some of his upcoming anti-crime measures, saying they will only clog the courts and prisons with the mentally ill and other vulnerable people.
But Rob Nicholson was having none of it. He said the Harper government will press forward in Parliament this fall with its long-awaited omnibus package of crime laws — including the contentious introduction of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and sexual offences.
In a polite but forceful, hour-long question-and-answer session with members of the Canadian Bar Association during its annual meeting in Halifax, Nicholson stated repeatedly that the Conservatives’ majority victory in the spring election amounts to a clear mandate to “crack down” on crime.
“From coast to coast one thing is clear, Canadians want to see their communities as safe places to live, raise their families and do business. We have listened to Canadians and with the strong mandate we have received, we’ll continue to act on their behalf,” he said.
The 37,000-member Canadian Bar Association has deep reservations about some measures in the omnibus package. It passed resolutions in Halifax on the weekend condemning mandatory minimum sentences, the imprisonment of mentally ill offenders and the over-representation of aboriginal people in the prison system.
It also pressed Ottawa to release estimates on the extra cost of jailing increasing numbers of offenders due to mandatory minimum sentences.
At the very least, the CBA wants Nicholson to add a “safety valve” provision into the Criminal Code that would give judges the discretion to exempt certain offenders from mandatory minimums in rare cases where prison time would create a clear injustice.
The CBA says Britain, South Africa and Australia have similar provisions in their sentencing laws.
Nicholson was asked Monday whether he didn’t trust Canada’s judges with such a provision.
“Mandatory penalties are quite reasonable,” he said. “Our responsibility as legislators is to give guidance to the courts. We’re doing what we’re supposed to do.”
Nicholson also ruled out making any allowances for aboriginal offenders who might have been victimized themselves as children in residential schools.
Dan MacRury, a Nova Scotia prosecutor who chairs the CBA’s criminal justice section, said he was disappointed by Nicholson’s response.
“If there is no safety valve in the system, there are no options for judges who will have to incarcerate people that may be better treated in the community.
“The minister is right, Parliament provides guidance. All we’re asking for is that guidance also has a safety valve in it, so the most vulnerable in our society are well protected.”
Nicholson, however, said he remains interested in more wide-ranging solutions for dealing with mentally ill offenders. Talks are currently underway on the matter between federal and provincial officials and the CBA. But Nicholson offered no details about what initiatives Ottawa might take.
Nicholson rejected the suggestion by some lawyers Monday that by bundling the government’s various crime bills into a large, single piece of legislation, he is hampering parliamentarians and other watchdogs from properly examining and suggesting changes to the proposals.
He said there has been enough “tinkering” with the crime proposals already.
He also said voters were familiar with many of the crime proposals before the election, because most of the legislation was first introduced in Parliament years ago, only to die before becoming law, because Parliament was prorogued or an election was called.
The government promised during the election campaign to pass the most of the outstanding crime bills into law as an omnibus bill, within 100 days of the sitting of the new Parliament.
That gives the government until early March to do so.
– Article from The Province.