OTTAWA — The Conservative government dismissed the cost to taxpayers and the direction of crime trends Tuesday as it introduced sweeping new criminal-justice changes it says will make Canadians feel safer.
"We’re not governing on the basis of the latest statistics," Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said at a news conference in suburban Brampton, Ont.
"We’re governing on the basis of what’s right to better protect victims and law-abiding Canadians."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has moved to make good on an election promise to bundle a series of proposed measures as part of what he’s called his "tough-on-crime" agenda.
The 110-page bill tabled in the Commons affects nine pieces of legislation and includes changes to drug laws, youth sentencing, the pardons system, detention of refugees, parole, house arrest and anti-terrorism measures.
"Canadians want and deserve to feel safe in their homes and in their communities," Nicholson, flanked by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, said at one of several news conferences constituting a fullpress, public-relations effort to tout the politically popular reforms.
"They want a government that is committed to fighting crime and protecting Canadians so that their communities are safe places for people to live, raise their families and do business."
Controversial proposals on citizen arrests and Internet surveillance are not included in the package, but Nicholson said the omnibus bill "is just the beginning of our efforts in this regard."
The government won praise from victims’-rights groups but critics say the measures are hugely expensive and have been proven ineffective — or worse — over three decades of increasingly draconian "tough-on-crime" campaigns in the United States.
Crime rates in both Canada and the U.S. have been trending downward in near lockstep for at least a decade.
Many American state governments are attempting to unravel harsh minimum- sentencing provisions and bring in more parole and house-arrest options in an effort to ease prison costs.
The Conservative "ideological bent that punishment will deter crime flies in the face of absolutely all the evidence," said NDP justice critic Joe Comartin, who has been studying justice reforms for seven years. "They’ve yet to produce one viable study that shows that deterrence works. Prevention works, deterrence does not."
The Canadian Bar Association, the Canadian Paediatric Society and a coalition of justice groups were among those against the omnibus bill.
Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society, said parts of the provincial and federal correctional systems are so stuffed they may already violate charter protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The omnibus bill will only exacerbate the problems and could send correctional costs through the roof, she said.
Corrections Canada estimates the system’s cost will rise to $3 billion this fiscal year from $1.6 billion in 2006, when the Conservatives took power.
The Harper government fell last spring in part due to a contempt-of-Parliament motion that sprang from the Conservative cabinet’s refusal to detail the full cost of its various justice bills.
The government eventually offered documents that suggested 18 proposed measures would cost about $631 million in total. Critics say that’s far too low.
Many of the new provisions will increase the number of offenders facing sentences of less than two years, putting more strain on provincial jails.
Nicholson sidestepped the cost question, focusing instead on a 2008 Justice Department study that estimated crime costs Canadians $99 billion annually.
"Most of that is borne by victims," Nicholson said.
The report found the social and economic costs of Criminal Code offences in Canada were approximately $31.4 billion, with another $68.2 billion in "intangible costs" for things such as pain and suffering. "However, placing a monetary value on intangible items is subject to considerable uncertainty and controversy," cautioned the study.
Liberal Leader Bob Rae said the omnibus bill belies the Conservative claim to be fixated on the economy. "The only good-news statistic that we’ve seen in the last while is that the crime rate is actually going down," he said.
— The Canadian Press