Opposition MPs soften Tory tough- on- crime bill
Committee loosens rules for house arrest
One of the Conservative government’s key law- and- order initiatives has been dealt a critical blow by opposition parties, who have effectively gutted a bill that would have severely curtailed the use of house arrest and jailed about 5,500 more people annually.
The three opposition parties on the House of Commons justice committee, which held public hearings on the bill, have dramatically amended the proposal so that the vast majority of criminals will remain eligible to serve their time in the com- munity instead of going to jail.
It is the first of the Harper government’s justice bills to be significantly altered by the opposition, who hold the balance of power in Parliament and have warned that they will not back any punishments they believe are too severe for the crime.
NDP MP Joe Comartin, the committee’s co- chairman, said the opposition parties have rejected the “ radical, extreme overreaction” of the Conservatives in their efforts to eliminate conditional sentences for about 80 crimes for which the maximum prison term is 10 years or more, including most car thefts, arson, break and enter and theft over $ 5,000.
Under the amended bill, only serious violent and sexual offenders will be excluded from house arrest, said Mr. Comartin, who predicted that only 1,000 convicted criminals will lose their eligibility each year for crimes such as assault causing bodily harm, sexual assault, robbery and dangerous use of a vehicle causing bodily harm.
As it stands, roughly 15,500 people receive house arrest sentences annually, and judges must consider the prospect for anyone sentenced to less than two years.
While Justice Minister Vic Toews can still take his original bill to the House of Commons for a final vote, the justice committee’s decision shows that the Conservatives’ plans are doomed, Mr. Comartin said.
Mr. Toews lamented the potential failure of a flagship piece of legislation, which was one of his party’s big hopes for success on the law- and- order front.
“ It is disappointing to see the opposition so out of touch with Canadians when it comes to tackling crime,” he said yesterday.
“ What it essentially means is that very serious crimes are still open to house arrest.”
Mr. Toews said he hasn’t given up on the prospect of bringing his original bill to the House of Commons for a vote.
“ I am counting on people with a little more common sense than that committee demonstrated,” he told reporters.
The Conservatives have rallied against conditional sentences for years, complaining that in the 10 years they have existed in Canadian law they have been handed out freely for serious violent crimes, including child molestation and rape.
Conditional sentences were brought in by former justice minister Allan Rock in 1996, in part to ease prison overcrowding, and were supposed to be reserved for non- violent, minor crimes.
Mr. Comartin said he believes that the justice committee’s amended bill addresses the concerns of Canadians about conditional sentences being handed out inappropriately.
Under the current law, conditional sentences are also not available for crimes for which there is already a minimum mandatory penalty under the Criminal Code, including several gun- related crimes.