Ottawa Citizen

Opposition MPs soften Tory tough- on- crime bill

Committee loosens rules for house arrest

- BY JANICE TIBBETTS

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.

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