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Bill C-10: The Debate that Wasn't

Today, the House had its final opportunity to debate Bill C-10, the Conservative omnibus crime bill. It is quick to judge non-violent offenders as needing lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

Today, the House had its final opportunity to debate Bill C-10, the Conservative omnibus crime bill. I rose to participate in the debate and began with my prospective conclusion -- that, if at the conclusion of this debate we adopt Bill C-10, we will adopt legislation that lacks an evidentiary basis in its pertinent particulars; we will be adopting legislation that is constitutionally suspect, thereby violating our obligations and inviting future Charter challenges; we will be adopting legislation for which the costs remain unknown, thereby breaching our responsibilities for the oversight of the public purse while also burdening the provinces.

If we adopt C-10, we will increase prison over-crowding -- also giving rise to Charter concerns -- while again not improving the safety of Canadians in any way. Indeed, adopting this legislation would be a betrayal of the very mandate common to all parties in this House: ensuring safe streets and communities. For we will end up, as I said when this bill was introduced -- and must reaffirm again -- with more crime, less justice, spiralling yet undisclosed costs, less rehabilitation for the offender, less protection for the victims, and less safety for our citizens.

Simply put, the entire C-10 debate -- consisting of repeated invocation of time allocation and summarily rejecting all opposition amendments -- is endemic of the government's ill-considered, unthinking, and intemperate "rush to judgment." I say "rush to judgement" because, in a sad irony, that is what this bill seeks to do. It is quick to judge non-violent offenders as needing lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

It is quick to judge mentally ill persons as criminals not meriting treatment without taking into account mental health considerations and whether treatment might be more appropriate. It is quick to judge and abolish conditional sentencing -- and eliminate the related judicial discretion -- without taking into account aggravating and mitigating factors through its use of mandatory penalties. Indeed, the government was quick to judge that this omnibus legislation was necessary -- again, in the absence of evidence to the contrary -- when, in fact, crime in this country is decreasing.

Perhaps most distressing was the government's rejection of opposition amendments, such as those I proposed to the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, because it eventually realized the merit of these amendments and had to re-present them as their own in the Senate. This is the reason we are again debating C-10 in the House. The debate on these provisions would not have happened had the government simply read my amendments and accepted them -- or offered sub-amendments that I would have accepted -- rather than dismissing them all merely because I am a member of the opposition.

Further, the Government sought to justify its intemperate haste by invoking the title -- the Safe Streets and Communities Act -- as if the very title alone validated the legislation; and, if any questions were raised or critiques offered about the bill, the government repeated the mantra -- as it has throughout this process -- that it had a "mandate" for its enactment. Yet, every government and every party has a mandate and obligation for safe streets and safe communities. The real question -- the one that needed to be debated but never was -- is the merits of the means chosen.

I say the debate that "never was" because one need only have watched the debate or read the record to see that government did not take Parliament seriously. If they had, they would not have repeatedly moved time allocation and attempted to silence debate. They would have considered -- at the very least -- opposition amendments such as my own, thereby obviating the need for today's meeting. They would not seek to discredit the parliamentary budget officer's assessment of portions of this legislation, which we know will cost far beyond what the government has projected. They would not have introduced legislation that we know to be constitutionally suspect.

Simply put, one need only watch the debate to see the government trot out scripted remarks that have nothing to do with the merits of the bill, the questions asked, or the amendments proposed, but everything to do with arrogantly suggesting that only they care about victims, that the opposition only cared about criminals, the whole underpinned by fear-mongering, in complete disregard for the evidence and the truth.

Space does not permit me to detail and document every flaw of this legislation. By way of brief summation, however, some of the substantive and procedural defects of this bill and its consideration include:

1. The bundling of nine major pieces of legislation into one omnibus bill and the imposition of closure in both the House and in committee deliberations, thereby not allowing for the necessary and differentiated parliamentary discussion and debate, let alone the necessary oversight of the legislation.

2. The serious problem of prison overcrowding even prior to when this legislation was introduced, with some provinces already reporting prisons at 200 per cent capacity. We know that overcrowding leads to more crime within prisons and more crime outside prisons.

3. The removal of the requirement that corrections administrators use "the least restrictive measures," generating yet another constitutional concern relative to incarceration and potential cruel and unusual punishment.

4. The inclusion of other constitutionally suspect provisions in the legislation, including:

· Severe, excessive, disproportionate, and prejudicial mandatory minimum sentences;

· Vague and overbroad offences;

· Undue and arbitrary exercise of executive discretion; and

· Unconstitutional pre-trial detention issues evoking s. 11 concerns.

5. We still do not know how much this bill will cost the federal government or the governments of the provinces and territories. The absence of such disclosure betrays both the public right to know and our parliamentary responsibility for oversight of the public purse. Indeed, the most recent report from the parliamentary budget officer in the matter of conditional sentencing alone finds that the federal government would bear additional costs of about $8 million and the provincial and territorial governments would bear additional costs totalling about $137 million; yet, the government indicated there would be no costs to either the Federal government or the provincial and territorial governments in this regard.

6. The lack of consultation with the provinces and territories, where these costs will be imposed upon them at the expense of the delivery of government services. This is particularly true in the case of Quebec, whose youth justice model -- a preventive, rehabilitative, and protective one -- is being replaced by a punitive, incarcerative, and ineffective one.

7. The introduction of new -- and enhancement of existing -- mandatory minimum penalties. Both Canadian studies and the evidence from other jurisdictions show that these penalties do not deter crime; increase the chance that the offender will reoffend; are unfair, inconsistent, gross and disproportionate; invite further constitutional challenges; and, indeed, have a differential and discriminatory impact on vulnerable groups already suffering from poverty, deprivation, and disadvantage, such as our Aboriginal peoples, where 34% of Aboriginal women are already in prison.

8. The numerous privacy concerns in the legislation, as reflected in the letter of the Privacy Commissioner to the head of the Justice and Human Rights Committee, which remain unaddressed and without redress.

9. The manner in which debate was shut down -- in Parliament, in the legislative committee, at Report Stage, and again this week -- as well as the manner in which amendments were summarily rejected while those offering them were accused with the arrogant and offensive rejoinder that the opposition supports criminals and not victims, was a standing abuse of Parliament and the democratic process.

10. The internal inconsistencies and translation issues between the English and French versions of the legislation that remain because the Government is more concerned with time allocation and haste in adoption than it is with ensuring the quality of our laws and the integrity of our processes..

And these 10 points are just the beginning. Given these considerations -- and others like them -- it is clear that as a result of this omnibus crime bill we will have more crime, less justice, skyrocketing costs, fewer rehabilitation opportunities for offenders, less protection and voice for the victims, and less protection for society.

In short, this omnibus bill is about principles and priorities -- indeed, at its core, it is about values. Simply put, if we spend billions of dollars on building unnecessary prisons while crime is receding --and on incarcerating more people for longer periods of time -- then that money cannot be used to invest in a social justice agenda, child care, health care, crime prevention, seniors or social housing.

I do hope we'll see the day that -- for the protection of victims, for the safety of our citizens -- some of the more egregious portions of this bill will be amended properly by a subsequent Parliament, with others struck down -- and rightfully so -- by the courts.

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