Straight Talk
TOM BRODBECK - Heading in the right direction: Tories must not be deterred in their quest to fix Canada's justice system

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces a new high risk category in courts to keep mentally ill criminals behind bars in Burnaby, British Columbia February 8, 2013.

Credits: REUTERS/Ben Nelms

TOM BRODBECK | QMI AGENCY

WINNIPEG -- The federal Tories have come a long way in their efforts to crack down on crime since taking office in 2006.

But to say they have a lot more work on their hands to make our streets safer would be an understatement.

Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson laid out his legislative blueprint for justice reform last week for the upcoming parliamentary session.

The proposed changes are good ones.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced changes Friday, for example, on how the courts will deal with people found not criminally responsible (NCR) for their actions due to mental illness. The courts will be given the authority to designate some NCR offenders as “high risk,” which means they will only be released into the community if the courts later revoke the “high-risk” status. It’s not perfect, but it’s far better than what we have now.

The way it currently works is NCR offenders are removed from the justice system entirely. And once they are extricated from the court process, the courts can no longer determine their fate.

Instead, a Criminal Code Review Board monitors their status annually and decides whether they should get escorted or non-escorted leave, and ultimately whether they should be released into the community.

The proposed changes at least provide some judicial oversight of NCR offenders, which is an improvement over the status quo.

Nicholson’s most recent proposals do add to a growing list of Tory reforms over the years that are helping to put the “justice” back into Canada’s beleaguered justice system.

We’ve seen, for example, the elimination of two-for-one credit for pre-trial sentences and tougher sanctions for people who commit sex crimes against children.

The Tories have eliminated pardons for the most serious offenders and those who commit gun crimes now face rigorous mandatory minimum sentences.

Still, reform has been slow. Part of the reason is the system is so broken, no government can fix it overnight.

The truth is, there was an avalanche of soft-on-crime provisions added to the Criminal Code over the past two decades -- from Gladue reports and house-arrest options to early parole and non-incarceratory measure for young criminals -- that it’s virtually impossible to fix in a short period of time.

Consider a provision like accelerated parole. The Tories finally got rid of that last year. But why was it there in the first place?

Accelerated parole allowed some non-violent offenders to obtain parole after serving only one-sixth of their sentence.

It’s a provision that made a mockery of the sentences handed down by the courts.

The reality is, the social experiment of allowing repeat, violent offenders back into the community sooner rather than later -- and without access to lengthy and comprehensive programming while behind bars -- has been an abject failure.

There is no evidence any of the slap-on-the-wrist policies brought in during the 1990s has reduced recidivism or the crime rate.

Mostly, it has caused the public to lose faith in the justice system. Those changes did not make our streets safer but they did, in so many cases, bring the administration of justice into disrepute.

So now, we are on a long journey towards reform. And it takes time. There are constitutional implications for every proposed change. There is push-back from liberal-minded bureaucrats and from opposition parties. And there is political divergence within Canada -- Quebec is generally not a tough-on-crime province -- which makes it tricky at times for politicians to navigate the complicated world of justice reform.

Nevertheless, I would still like to see it move faster.

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