As the federal government’s bill C-10, aka the Safe Streets and Communities Act, is poised to make its way to the Senate, opposition of the omnibus crime bill shows no sign of slowing down.
The bill is currently in its third and final reading in the House of Commons, before going to a final vote on Monday.
On Nov. 25, Justin Piché, an assistant professor of sociology at Memorial University, gave a lecture at the U of M via Skype titled “Building Our Way Towards Safer Communities? Prison Capacity Expansion and the Need for an Alternative Approach.”
During his lecture, Piché presented his research that disputes the Harper government’s approach to crime and asked Manitobans to speak out against Bill C-10.
“For me, if we know that people that often tend to be criminalized often have employment issues, education issues, mental health issues, substance abuse issues and so on, we should be placing money not into building more prisons, but directing more services to the community [ . . . ] to prevent people from becoming criminalized before they harm others and harm themselves,” he said.
He pointed out that Manitoba is going to be taking on “a significant amount” of the costs associated with the omnibus crime bill if changes aren’t made to penal legislation at the federal level, costs the Manitoba government will need to find ways to absorb.
“They could instruct police to exert more discretion, ask prosecutors to pursue lesser charges against those accused, or they could go about this by building more prison spaces, which is more expensive and detrimental to people in the long term,” he said.
An additional 500-plus prison spaces are slated for Manitoba prisons, with construction costs of approximately $100 million.
Piché has called upon the Manitoba adult correction capacity review committee, which has been in the process of assessing the need for prison expansion in Manitoba, to ask for the provincial government to demand a moratorium on federal punishment legislation. He argued for the need of a more broad based discussion in Canada on how to better prevent crime and meet the needs of the criminalized and victimized alike, rather than addressing these issues through incarceration.
“I think if we had that discussion, we wouldn’t be building the amount of prisons that we’re building right now, and we wouldn’t be continuing this prison expansion in the future,” he said.
John Hutton, executive director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba, a non-profit community-based justice organization that has organized demonstrations against bill C-10, said it troubled him that federal crime legislation was being passed as an omnibus bill and there was limited debate allotted in the House of Commons on the bill.
“It’s got so much stuff in it that the full impact of the legislation won’t be known until way down the road,” he said.
“It’s far too important to sort of shove through and not allow scrutiny or debate or discussion.”
Hutton said his organization has no plans to stop the pressure on the provincial and federal governments to change course on the crime legislation.
“We have to muster up as much opposition as we can. It’s important to show the government that they’re going to have a real fight on their hands” if they continue with their current approach to justice issues in Canada, he said.
Despite criticism from some Manitobans over the provincial NDP government’s support of bill C-10, which included recent “occupations” and demonstrations outside of Justice Minister Andrew Swan’s constituency office, the provincial government has remained firm on their stance.
Swan explained that the Manitoba government feels the proposed changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act will give judges more tools when dealing with repeat offenders.
He said the Manitoba government is also in support of toughening up sentences for crimes involving the sexual exploitation of children and for individuals who manufacture and traffic drugs for the purpose of organized crime, and removing conditional sentencing for violent offenders.
“The federal government has not set it up as a buffet where you can pick and choose what you’d like to support, but what we do support in bill C-10 are things that we think will make our streets and our communities safer,” Swan said.
However, Swan said he is concerned that changes to mandatory minimum sentencing under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act may put undue pressure on drug treatment courts if more individuals are facing charges.
“We think it’s the right thing to do, but the federal government has to be involved in that. They can’t simply expect provincial governments, like Manitoba, to shoulder the entire burden” in operating drug treatment courts to allow offenders with substance abuse problems to obtain treatment, he said.
These changes are also expected to put a strain on the legal aid system in Manitoba, if individuals who would have otherwise plead guilty decide to contest the charges against them when facing a minimum jail sentence, Swan explained.
“If individuals realize that there’s a minimum jail sentence [for the offence], they will be more likely to contest those charges and it’s going to be more necessary for legal aid then to defend them,” he said.