September 28, 2011 - In today's National Post, new MLI Senior Fellow and Law Professor Benjamin Perrin discusses the criminal justice reforms included in the Safe Streets and Communities Act. He says, "While not perfect, the bill introduces numerous reforms that will improve our nation's criminal justice system." Article below:

 

The government's omnibus crime bill is not draconian

By Benjamin Perrin, National Post, September 28, 2011

There is a widely held sentiment that the criminal justice process has left victims and their families behind, and that our laws have failed to keep pace with the reality of serious crimes, including terrorism, organized drug crime, human trafficking, and predatory pedophiles. It is not merely a sentiment but, in many cases, a reality.

Last week, the federal government acted on a campaign promise to introduce an omnibus package of criminal justice reforms that had been introduced and debated in the previous minority Parliament for years, only to be stalled. Predictably, the usual suspects have appeared to raise a hue and cry railing against the Safe Streets and Communities Act. They call it retrograde, costly, and American.

Unfortunately, very few people have taken the time to read through the 102-pages of targeted reforms or even the copious summaries on government websites. If you did, you might be surprised by what you would find. While not perfect, the bill introduces numerous reforms that will improve our nation's criminal justice system.

What are some of the supposedly unacceptable reforms? Consider the following sampling of changes that have been proposed:

- Making and distributing child pornography would no longer carry a meager mandatory 90 days in jail, but a minimum of 6 months imprisonment.

- Sexually assaulting a child (person under 16 years of age) using a weapon, kidnapping, forcible confinement, and abduction (by a stranger of a person under 14 years of age) would all be offences that could no longer result in house arrest.

- Two new offences would be introduced to cover the widely recognized practices used by predatory pedophiles who "groom" their young victims by exposing them to sexually explicit material, and try to arrange meetings with kids online to sexually abuse them.

- "Date rape" drugs would be classified as more serious controlled substances, resulting in higher sentences for manufacturing them.

- Importing illegal narcotics will now carry a mandatory one-year term of imprisonment.

- Provincial and territorial governments will decide at what age Crown prosecutors should consider seeking adult sentences for young offenders convicted of murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, and aggravated assault.

- Victims of crime would have a statutory right to participate in parole board hearings.

- Victims of terrorism would be able to sue terrorists and supporters of terrorism, including foreign states that support designated terrorist entities.

- Human trafficking can be prevented by allowing immigration officers to evaluate work placements to ensure they are not fronts for sex trafficking or forced labour.

These, and the vast majority of proposed changes are eminently reasonable and promote a sense of accountability in situations where we as a society are asked to put our collective faith in our police and judicial institutions to safeguard our children, our safety, our lives, and our property.

The Safe Streets and Communities Act is also not lacking in measures to enhance the possibility of rehabilitating offenders. However, rather than assuming this sentencing principle supersedes all else, in all circumstances, and for all offenders, it takes a view of rehabilitation that is both realistic and effective.

For example, under the reforms, an offender who is addicted to drugs can be given a suspended or reduced sentence if they complete an approved drug treatment program under court supervision or as part of one of the specialized Drug Treatment Court approved programs.

Additionally, inmates serving their time will each be required to have an individual "correctional plan" that include behavioural expectations, goals for program participation, and ensuring that court-ordered restitution to victims is made and any child support obligations are met.

This package of reforms is not in response to a crime wave, although it is recognized that certain serious offences like drug crime and child sexual exploitation offences are indeed increasing, but rather it is about rebalancing the criminal law in a way that increases accountability of offenders for the most serious and violent crimes that any person could suffer from.

These reforms are overdue, important, and consistent with the expectations that many Canadians have that individuals who commit serious crimes should be assisted in rehabilitation, but also punished for their crimes and specifically deterred from reoffending.

Benjamin Perrin is a law professor at the University of British Columbia and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.