Is the Harper government planning harsher rules once omnibus crime bill passes?

John Size
Canada Politics

Canada's justice minister, Rob Nicholson, said "this is just the beginning" when he unveiled the Harper government's infamous 100-page omnibus crime bill last week, and he likely meant it.

As the government used its 166-seat majority to impose closure on debate Tuesday to get the monster bill into the Commons justice committee for witness hearings, it was hard to imagine what could be left.

The bill, which throws together nearly a dozen crime bills the Conservatives had on the Commons plate when Stephen Harper cut Parliament short for the May election, seems to address every remaining pet peeve Harper and Nicholson had left over, following an endless string of earlier crime bills since they first won power nearly six years ago.

There are new mandatory minimum sentences, even for the possession of only six marijuana joints for the purpose of trafficking, which includes simply handing one of them off to a pal, higher maximum penalties for crimes, tougher sentencing for young offenders, more publicity in violent youth crimes and even a requirement police keep records of any "extrajudicial measures" they use to deal with young persons, presumably even stern lectures on the street corner, with a couple names jotted down in a notebook.

It is a mystery, then, as to what, exactly, the Conservatives might have on their minds for the future, which will presumably take place over the course of the next four years while they still have their majority.

If you listen to John Rosen, a prominent criminal defence lawyer in Toronto, there might be some clues.

Rosen told Yahoo! Canada News he suspects, for this round, the Harper government's motives may be related to the justice and penal system in the U.S., where, thanks to HBO and any number of feature films about prison breaks and riots over the past few decades, we all know things are much, much tougher than they are in Canada.

For one thing, not to mention the brutal conditions of prisons, most federal offenders in the U.S. serve 85 per cent of their time in jail before they can be released, compared to parole eligibility at one-third of a sentence, for most crimes, all but the most serious, in Canada.

Rosen believes that is one area in which the U.S. was pressing the Canadian government to take measures that would level the playing field, hence the new higher maximum sentences, and the mandatory minimums, particularly in drug trafficking and production, and offences against children.

But, as every expert, including prosecutors, testified in Parliamentary committees the last time around, when the measures in the omnibus bill were trundling through the Commons and the Senate as individual items, none of those stiffer penalties actually lowered crime rates in the States, and instead led to overcrowded prisons with condition so odious judges are ordering prisoners released because of basic human rights violations.

"In the United States, they hand out draconian sentences," Rosen says. "They minimize your ability to work towards an earlier release."

"The net effect is to fill the prisons, to the point of nearly bankrupting the system, and under their law people apply to the court, for overcrowding and so forth, and the court orders the government to release prisoners, so you get this mass release of people because they don't have enough beds."

"California is on the brink of bankruptcy, so every once in a while 10,000 prisoners get let go because they can't afford to house them."

Rosen suspects a prisoner transfer treaty Canada has with the U.S. might have been the biggest factor in any U.S. pressure for tougher drug and crime sentencing in Canada.

But NDP MP Don Davies, a lawyer from British Columbia who has expertise in human rights law, says that was not the case. In fact, according to diplomatic cables between Ottawa and Washington, the U.S. government opposed a portion of the bill that deals with prisoner transfers.

The section will actually make it tougher for the U.S. to transfer Canadian offenders imprisoned there to Canadian jails.

The Harper government has resisted these transfers, says Davies. That is likely because, as mentioned earlier, prison conditions in Canada are better, and offenders can get out sooner, as long as they qualify for early release.

So, it's no surprise the persons now in power in Ottawa, who believe past governments have been soft on crime, would rather these Canadian offenders remain in U.S. jails, where life is much harder.

"What this will do is make it more difficult for Canadians serving sentences in places like the States to come here," Davies said. "The United States wants us to be taking our share of Canadian citizens back, just like we're repatriating their citizens as well."

Davies says the omnibus bill "gives the minister unbelievable discretion to refuse a request for transfer. These changes would give the public safety minister virtually unlimited discretion."
Which takes us back to the original question: what else could Harper and Nicholson have up their sleeves?

Well, how about this? Maybe they plan to overhaul the entire sentencing system, the one that allows most offenders out if they qualify for parole after serving a third of their sentence.

Now that would level the playing field.

(Getty Images)