Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

Canada’s Tough New Crime Bill May Violate Child Rights

MONTREAL, Feb 12 2012 (IPS) - As the Senate debates the merits of the Canadian government’s newly-passed omnibus crime bill, organisations across the country have raised serious issues with the legislation, particularly when it comes to amendments relating to the treatment of young offenders.

“The course we were on for young people was working, was contributing to public safety. There isn’t evidence to show that putting more young people in jails, for lesser crimes, for longer periods of time, works,” said Kathy Vandergrift, chair of the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children (CCRC).

“We have too many young people falling through the cracks of fragmented support systems across provincial lines. Paying attention to that, we argue, would be a better investment and a much better contribution to public safety,” she added.

Tabled as the “Safe Streets and Communities Act”, or Bill C-10, the new crime legislation was passed in the Canadian House of Commons on Dec. 5, 2011. It bundles together nine separate bills on issues ranging from migrants entering Canada to organised crime and child sexual exploitation.

Among other provisions, the law would increase mandatory minimum sentences and pre-trial detention, instate harsher prison sentencing for young offenders and longer wait times for individuals applying for pardons, and make it more difficult for Canadians detained abroad to serve the remainder of their sentence at home.

According to Vandergrift, some components of Bill C-10 contradict Canada’s responsibilities as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, including the state’s obligations to protect the privacy of youth offenders, and to prioritise the well-being of children above all else.

“We would like to see Part 4 (of Bill C-10), which deals with the youth criminal justice system, taken out of the bill and discussed separately. Youth justice should be substantially different from adult justice. An omnibus crime bill that discusses adult crime is not the appropriate place to discuss youth justice,” Vandergrift said. “Take some time, make sure we get it right, and do it separately.”

Getting tough on crime was a major campaign promise of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative party, which now holds a majority in Parliament. This is despite the fact that Statistics Canada recently found that 2010 saw the country’s lowest crime rate since 1973.

While the Harper government has so far not released specific figures on the cost of Bill C-10, one study estimates that it will cost Canadians 19 billion dollars to implement the bill.

Several provinces have signaled their intention not to finance Bill C-10, including New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Ontario. The government of Quebec has also stated that not only would it not finance the bill, estimated at 500 dollars million for the province, but that it disagrees with its narrow focus on incarceration.

“An efficient and sustainable fight against criminality cannot limit itself to imprisoning offenders,” said Quebec Justice Minister Jean- Marc Fournier in November 2011. “The focusing of all intervention on incarceration is only a temporary and superficial solution. It is a solution that is soft on crime.”

The Canadian Bar Association (CBA), which represents 37,000 lawyers, notaries, law professors and students across Canada, also raised concerns that Bill C-10 ignores the rehabilitation process entirely.

“The concern CBA has is that the bill will dramatically change the criminal justice system to make it more punitive in nature,” explained Daniel MacRury, CAB Spokesperson and head of its criminal justice section.

“It doesn’t take into account that people who are incarcerated will get out at some point in time and there has to be a proper reintegration planned so that the community is safe. The emphasis of this bill is not on rehabilitation, but on punitive measures only. The system in the past has been more balanced than it will be after this piece of legislation,” MacRury told IPS.

He explained that the legislation would have the harshest impact on mentally ill Canadians and Aboriginal Canadians, the latter of whom are already disproportionately over-represented in the country’s prison system. The government not being completely transparent in how it formulated the legislation is also a major concern, MacRury added.

“These are nine pieces of major legislation. It’s going to overhaul the criminal justice system and the penal system. A large part of this bill has not been studied, has not been vetted. The reality is that Canadians deserve a thorough understanding of what’s involved here,” he said.

“If ever a piece of legislation deserves a second thought and reconsideration, it’s Bill C-10.”

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