Legislation making its way through Parliament could tip the scales of justice toward harsher penalties, causing some groups concern about imbalance in sentencing.
Bill C-10, named the Safer Streets and Communities Act, is an omnibus piece of legislation rolling nine proposed reforms that had been debated during the previous sessions but had never become law.
They range in scope and content from increasing penalties for sexual predators of children, delaying pardons for serious crimes and combatting human trafficking.
Conservative MP Dan Albas (Okanagan Coquihalla) said the legislation builds sentences to match the severity of the crimes, such as when a drug trafficker sells next to a school, involves violence in the commission of an offence or is a repeat offender.
While aggravating factors were considered by judges, he said, the sentence meted out did not reflect the severity of the situation.
“All of those things were an option before, but when that threshold has been met, when someone has multiple of those factors, they are going to be getting a sentence commensurate to the crime,” Albas said. “That’s a justice system that’s fair. Our first priority in government is to protect our citizens and that’s what people want to see.”
But there are elements causing consternation among members of the Canadian Bar Association, and Michael Welsh is lending his name to the opposition. A criminal trial lawyer who is vice-president of the Penticton and District Bar Association as well as the provincial representative on the B.C. branch of the Canadian association, he said lawyers understand the price the legislation will have on the country’s most vulnerable population.
“It’s going to criminalize a lot more of our youth. We’re going to have a lot more people going into custody with these mandatory minimums, and that’s only going to reinforce criminal behaviour,” he said.
Welsh explained that stiffer adult penalties will cause less people to plead guilty, resulting in more trials, delays in the system and ultimately over-crowded prisons akin to California and Texas.
“We’re penalizing the taxpayer by creating a system where we’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars in expanding and building new prisons and warehousing people when we can ill-afford this,” he said. “The people we’ll be sending to jail are low-level grow operations with respect to marijuana, and that’s over $100,000 a year to incarcerate somebody when statistics have indicated the crime rate is coming down.
“It’s just a cynical public relations exercise on the part of the federal government as far as I’m concerned. They’re trying to grab votes from people who think law and order and tough on crime is the way to go without understanding what’s really happening in this country.”
Albas said that the government is spending money on the federal corrections systems, in part because of aging infrastructure.
“Since we took office we’ve been making strategic investments to make sure the federal penitentiaries are getting safer. A lot of them are very old, very decrepit and not energy efficient, so we’ve been making those investments and continue to make those investments,” he said, adding the government wants to continue with prevention programs. “In our riding of Okanagan Coquihalla, we’ve invested quite heavily in both crime prevention and youth initiatives.”
The bill is currently being debated in Parliament, expected to wrap up discussion this week.