Conservative crime bill heads to Commons for final showdown

Critics say it favours incarceration over rehabilitation


Postmedia News

OTTAWA — After failing to get a single amendment to the controversial omnibus crime bill approved during committee, the opposition is poised to try again this week when the bill returns to the House of Commons.

While the Conservatives may well invoke closure and limit debate as they have multiple times before, New Democrats, Liberals and Green Party leader Elizabeth May, have nonetheless given notice on 73 new amendments and debate is scheduled to take place Tuesday and Wednesday in the report stage of deliberation on the bill.

The Conservatives are determined to push the Safe Streets and Communities Act through the Commons before Christmas and the bill is expected to become law within the first 100 sitting days of the 41st Parliament — March 16, 2012, according to the Commons calendar.

“At the report stage, we can’t create new law but we can eliminate aspects of the law we find distasteful,” NDP justice critic Jack Harris said, noting the amendments largely deal with the “principles” behind the bill.

“Our proposals at the report stage are generally to delete the negative aspects of the act.”

The official Opposition has about a dozen amendments to Bill C-10 on the notice paper. They seek to eliminate clauses that deal with conditional sentences, mandatory minimums for drug crimes, changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, a plan to replace the term “pardon” with “record suspension” and the added discretion afforded the public safety minister on matters related to the repatriation of Canadian prisoners jailed abroad.

Liberal justice critic Irwin Cotler has proposed more than 20 amendments, some of which seek to strengthen parts of the legislation that deal with terrorist activities, alter parts that deal with minimum mandatory sentences for marijuana production and add provisions for mental health.

“The thing that really bothers me is how many witnesses came before us and said ‘please, if you don’t do anything else, put in the mental-health provisions. Please, if you don’t do anything else, cut down on the minimum mandatory sentences, cut down on the executive discretion,’ ” Cotler said, noting the government has thus far been “unresponsive” to opposition demands and he expects little to change at this stage.

“I believe they want the legislation enacted in its present, unamended form.”

Because both the NDP and Liberals had the chance to put forward amendments in committee and are largely barred from tabling the same ones at the report stage, the vast majority of new proposals are coming from May.

There’s no limit to the number of amendments that can be put forward, though Speaker Andrew Scheer could rule that some matters were already dealt with in committee. Debate could go on until there are no speakers left for each amendment but the Conservatives are likely to put a cap on the discussion. Final reading on the bill will likely come the following week.

Marjory LeBreton, the government leader in the Senate, expects the bill will get first and second reading in the upper chamber before the holidays. It will then be referred to the Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs which will likely begin hearing from witnesses — likely many of the same ones who appeared before the Commons committee — when Parliament resumes at the end of January.

Although the opposition makeup is vastly different in the Senate — there are no NDP senators as the party wants the upper house abolished — the Conservatives have a majority there as well and “will use time allocation if it appears there’s a deliberate attempt to stop progress of the bill,” LeBreton said.

She expects the discussion to be no less heated and said amendments will certainly be considered.

But while even a few Tory senators have taken issue with aspects of the bill that have come up in previous Parliaments, “normally senators try to respect the wishes of the elected side of Parliament” and are generally “supportive of the government agenda” despite pressure to “reverse some of the legislation,” she said.

Bill C-10 is comprised of nine pieces of legislation the Conservatives failed to pass in previous Parliaments as a result of its minority status.

Critics argue the cost of the legislation will be enormous, that it favours incarceration over rehabilitation and reintegration and that it will lead to prison overcrowding.

It’s a model, they argue, that’s proven disastrous in the United States and that ignores statistics that show violent crime is on the decline.

Proponents say the bill goes a long way toward holding criminals fully accountable for their actions and ensuring the protection of Canadians and the needs of victims are paramount under Canada’s justice system.

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