Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

"Get tough on crime' stance seems to have been a sham

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Is it possible that the Tory program to "get tough on crime" was, in reality, one enormous sham?

Now that Parliament has been prorogued we can address that question because, with a new session two months away, all the old bills that did not receive royal assent must be reintroduced, and must begin the legislative process anew. That process can take the better part of a year.

What was on the order paper? Well, there was a Bill C-42 making conditional sentences unavailable for some specific offences. Bill C-52 was about increasing the sentence for "white collar fraud." Bill C-19 deals with investigative hearings with respect to possible terrorism. Some bills had made it as far as the Senate. Bill C-26 deals with the sentences to be imposed for auto theft, but which also includes a range of other issues. Bill C-36 would effectively do away with the Criminal Code "faint hope" provision, which enables an inmate who has served 15 years of a life sentence of a minimum of 25 years to apply for a hearing before a jury to allow probation on grounds that rehabilitation has been, or was being achieved.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson introduced all of these bills with the greatest of urgency. His warnings, that delay was not excusable, found a willing partner in Manitoba's new minister of justice, Andrew Swan. The opposition forces, gave way in rather meek subservience, lest the voting public conclude that they were "soft on crime" as the Tories asserted.

But what have we learned from the prorogation of Parliament? It has all been a joke.

The prorogation means that the government sees no urgency whatever in the passage of "tough on crime" legislation. It means that the bills that languish on the order paper will have to be re-introduced, and proceed through the lengthy process of hearings in the House and the Senate before they will become part of the law -- if at all. There is at least a strong likelihood that the entire process will be again interrupted by a general election.

Let us all hope so. The legislative program was ill-advised to begin with. Essentially, it was both expensive and harmful. Expensive because it would result in detention of offenders for longer periods, and thus at greater cost for jail and prison facilities. Harmful, because it departs from the proper emphasis on rehabilitation of offenders.

The opposition parties were fearful of opposing the "get tough on crime" legislation only because they did not want to be seen as opposing legislation that would make our communities safer, even though we would be not a whit safer. And the Senate was condemned for doing the very thing it was created to do -- give a sober second thought to flawed legislation.

Nicholson expressed his outrage that legislation was being held up in the Senate, but where is his outrage now that his prime minister, Stephen Harper, has declared the remaining bills politically insignificant. Everyone, including Harper, knew that the "tough on crime" provisions were only for show. When it came to a choice, the government decided that such legislation could wait for another year. Perhaps forever, if a federal election intervenes.

In three months time Nicholson (and his acolyte from St. Boniface) will be at it again, holding news conferences to announce the reintroduction of the same flawed legislation. Let us hope that this time round the opposition parties will be less fearful of opposing law of tenuous value which the government itself considered unworthy of blocking a parliamentary holiday.

Charles Huband is a former Manitoba Appeal Court judge and a past leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 6, 2010 A9

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