Nicholson Braces for Wrath Over Controversial Crime Bill

Canadian jail cells are not going to be brimming with teenagers and college kids who share pot with their pals, according to Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, who maintains one of the most contentious facets of his omnibus crime bill has been grossly misrepresented.

Mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana production are designed to target organized crime, gangs and grow-ops, he said in a year-end interview with Postmedia News.

They don’t apply to young offenders and even new provisions that aim to penalize adults who are trafficking drugs around schools mean perpetrators would have to be caught with an “eightpound joint” to be saddled with a mandatory minimum under the Safe Streets and Communities Act, he argued.

“For the most part the laws with respect to marijuana aren’t changed but they are changed with respect to trafficking associated with organized crime, gangs and grow-ops for the purpose of trafficking,” he said.

“I want to make that very clear because it was not clear in some of the criticisms. If somebody was thrown in jail under this bill, they were in the business of trafficking.”

It’s been a particularly acrimonious year for Nicholson, who has come under fire for bundling nine vastly different bills into one and pushing it through Parliament with his party’s new majority.

2012 isn’t expected to be any easier.

In January, Nicholson will meet with his provincial counterparts in what will undoubtedly be a difficult session.

Ontario and Quebec both have refused to pick up additional costs associated with the C-10 crime bill.

Quebec’s justice minister also recently left Ottawa fuming after the federal government refused to consider amendments aimed at preserving Quebec’s approach to criminal justice, which favours rehabilitation and reintegration, particularly where youth are concerned.

An old government cost breakdown associated solely with amendments to the Youth Criminal Justice Act – which was among the pieces of legislation wrapped into the crime bill after the government failed to pass it in previous minority Parliaments – reported incarceration levels would increase by 33% at a cost of $717 million over five years. And half of that would be absorbed by the provinces.

Nicholson, however, has stood by newer figures that suggest the entire omnibus law would cost the federal government $78.6 million over five years.

The government has not speculated on costs to the provinces but Nicholson knows exactly what he’ll say to his counterparts when the subject comes up.

“One of the things that I will reiterate is that we have acted on a number of the measures that they have proposed to us,” he said, noting many of the changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, as well as an earlier decision to eliminate two-for-one sentencing, were based on their advice.

“I say to them many of the costs associated with C-10 will be borne by the federal government with respect to the prosecution of drugs, which is a major component of this, and that the federal government has increased its allotment to the provinces every single year we have been in government, most recently by $2.4 billion.”

That said, the cost to provinces could be significant since they are responsible for the administration of justice.

Certain provisions in C-10 – like the elimination of house arrest for repeat and serious offences, including those punishable by a minimum term of imprisonment – are likely to translate into many more people serving provincial time.

Although missing data for Quebec and the Northwest Territories, figures obtained by Postmedia News from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics indicate some 11,634 individuals received a conditional sentence in 2009-10.

The omnibus crime bill is poised to pass in early 2012.

Also coming down the justice related legislation pipeline are the government’s plan to scrap the long-gun registry and a bill to redefine citizen’s arrest.

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