Bill C-10 – Harper Omnibus Crime Bill Facing Criticism Across the Board
What is Bill C-10?
On September 20, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson tabled Bill C-10, an omnibus bill titled the Safe Streets and Communities Act. Combining amendments from nine separate bills that had failed to pass in previous sessions of parliament, Bill C-10 would make fundamental changes to almost every component of Canada’s criminal justice system. It proposes:
- New criminal offences
- New and increased mandatory minimum sentences
- The selective elimination of conditional sentences
- Increased pretrial detention and new, harsher sentencing principles for young offenders
- Longer waiting times before individuals can apply for pardons
- Increased barriers for Canadians detained abroad who wish to serve the remainder of their sentence at home
The bill has come under severe criticism from several groups, including the the Canadian Bar Association, First Nations chiefs, the Canadian Criminal Justice Association, opposition MPs, the Canadian Pediatric Association, the Canadian Association of Social Workers, the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), the Ligue des droits et libertés, the justice ministers of Ontario, Québec, and Newfoundland, and even the traditionally conservative jurisdiction of the state of Texas in the U.S.
The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world, and Texas led all states in that category as recently as 2004. Texas has recognized that their “tough on crime” approach failed to succeed in its main objective: the prevention of crime. Texas is now moving towards a focus on rehabilitation over jail in appropriate cases, and the result is a reduction in crime, a reduction in recidivism (the likelihood of re-offending), and savings of billions to the taxpayers.
The Conservatives are estimating the cost of the bill to be around $78 million over the next five years.
Critics say those numbers are unrealistic; the bill will cost much more. Canada’s budget watchdog, Kevin Page, says the longer sentences and reduced pre-sentence jail credits will add $1-billion a year to total spending on corrections in Canada, along with more than 4,000 inmates to the federal prison system. Ontario Correctional Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur estimates the actual cost to be $ 1-billion for Ontario alone.
(See: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2011/10/06/pol-omnibus-crime-bill.html); http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/06/03/harper-government-omnibus_n_870368.html and http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/story/2012/01/23/ontario-federal-crime-bill.html).
Perhaps the most shocking thing about the current government’s approach is that Canadian crime rates are at their lowest rates in since 1973, and have been falling steadily for 20 years, according to Statistics Canada.
Further, Ontario has made efforts to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system through former Attorney General Chris Bentley’s Justice on Target initiative, with great success. The new bill threatens that progress, as critics of the new bill warn that the new mandatory minimum sentences are likely to result in more cases going to trial. This will mean increased delays and result in breaches of rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with more cases tossed out of court without any conviction or punishment whatsoever.
There is also the question of whether the mandatory minimum sentences, which remove discretion on sentencing from judges hearing the cases, will stand up to Charter scrutiny at all. Recently, Ontario Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy found a mandatory minimum sentence provision unconstitutional as she deemed it to be “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore in violation of the protected rights under the Charter. The impugned provision came into force in 2008 under the Harper government’s Bill C-2. The spectre of similar challenges to the new laws will further clog the court systems, as these applications tend to be complicated and time-consuming for both courts and for Crown prosecutors, who already work with limited time, resources and support.