Lawyers are delightful people…seriously! I’m not just saying that because I’m a member of the legal fraternity. They love esoteric debate and understand our laws better than most Canadians. And when they get riled up they take it to the streets—well, the virtual streets of the internet.
This fall 37,000 lawyers represented by the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) marshalled their knowledge and experience to critique Bill C-10, Harper’s Omnibus Crime Bill. This Bill bears the innocuous moniker, the Safe Street and Communities Act. Rather ironic, if not downright misleading, considering that Canada already has the safest streets and communities in the world and our crime rates are dropping not rising.
Bill C-10 is a mishmash of 9 different bills covering a range of proposals including at-risk youth, victims of terrorism, immigrant and refugee protection and the elimination of judicial discretion in sentencing. The CBA analyzed over 150 pages of legislation. Not an easy task considering that some of these proposals had surfaced in earlier bills, were commented on, changed and then resurrected in their original flawed form in Bill C- 10.
As a result of its analysis the CBA had no choice but to express its “serious concerns” (legalese for OMG!!!) in a 100 page submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights—twice.
The CBA also published a 2 pager setting out 10 reasons to oppose the Bill.
The CBA’s “serious concerns” fall into two baskets: process and substance (which pretty much covers the waterfront).
The process concerns were driven by Harper’s pre-election promise to deliver a tough crime bill within 100 days of being in power. He’s done that. He’s also trampled the democratic process embedded in parliamentary review. For example there is absolutely no evidence to support the need for this Bill. Crime rates and severity are at record low levels, with murder rates at their lowest point since the mid 1960s. Canadians know this—93% of them report feeling safe from crime.
But the Government was not interested in hearing the evidence. Lawyers, jurists and other experts were not given enough time to properly review the 150 page Bill. All that appears in the section dealing with offences against children is this poignant sentence: “We have not prepared comments on this part of the Bill”. Neither was the CBA given sufficient time to present its views to the Parliamentary Committee–experts were routinely cut off in mid-sentence 5 minutes into their presentations.
All the while Harper’s PR department was on “full spin” cycle, busily dishing out half truths to ratchet up the politics of fear and market the idea that Harper had delivered on his pre-election promise. Unfortunately the Bill’s overreach and overreaction to a non-existent problem will create the very problems it is supposed to solve.
Here’s why. The focus of Bill C-10 is retribution and punishment as opposed to prevention and rehabilitation. It is based on the premise that longer incarceration and enhanced disciplinary powers in the hands of prison guards will magically deter the criminally inclined from committing crimes or re-offending. Furthermore, the Bill signals a lack of trust in the judiciary by severely constricting the judges’ discretionary powers in sentencing. The end result is more prisons to house more inmates at greater cost to the taxpayer.
The saddest indictment of Bill C-10 is that this heavy handed approach was tried in California and Texas—and failed. These jurisdictions are now on “course correction” having realized that retribution and punishment costs too much and makes the justice system worse, not better. And yet Canada is plunging headlong down a path already proven to be disastrous.
As an aside, even Chief Dale McFee, the head of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, recognizes the need for balance: “When we’re dealing with serious crime, there’s quite frankly some people that need to go to jail but there’s also a lot of people (for whom) early intervention and prevention will go a long ways and save lots of money and obviously be more efficient in achieving the results at that end.”*
Bill C-10 has already cleared the House and is on its way to the Senate. Is it too late to do something about it?
It’s never too late to stand up for the democratic process and a well balanced justice system. Take a look at the recent Alberta experience with Bill 26, which introduced stiffer penalties for drivers caught between .05 and .08 blood alcohol levels. Bill 26 was rammed through the House by the majority PC government, but extremely negative feedback from the general public and restaurant and pub owners directly to their PC MLAs resulted in Premier Redford delaying the implementation of Bill 26 until next summer. There will be an election between now and then, many new players will join the Legislature. Who knows what might happen.
“What do you get when 37,000 lawyers are agitated?” is not the start of a lawyer joke. It’s an act of political activism. The CBA needs our help. Here’s what you can do. Go to the CBA President’s letter on the CBA website. Follow the trail to your MP and the Prime Minister. Tell them that the Government failed to respect the democratic process when it passed Bill C–10 and the implementation of the Bill should be held in abeyance until all parties have an opportunity to give it due consideration.
Let’s face it, if 37,000 stogy old lawyers can become political activists, so can you.
*CTV On-line Dec 6, 2011.