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Alberta's Justice Minster Doug Schweitzer, seen here on Dec. 31, 2019, said he believes the threat of stiffer penalties would deter criminals from targeting rural areas.

Todd Korol/The Canadian Press

Alberta’s Justice Minister says he wants criminals who target people in rural communities to face harsher sentences in part to give offenders with addictions better access to drug-treatment programs.

Doug Schweitzer said he also believes the threat of stiffer penalties would deter criminals from targeting rural areas. Alberta is pushing Ottawa to make changes to the Criminal Code that would guide judges to consider crime targeting rural victims as an aggravating factor in sentencing decisions. Aggravating factors serve as justification for harsher penalties.

The campaign is part of the United Conservative Party’s multiprong approach to addressing what it considers a rural crime epidemic in Alberta, even though data show a drop in reported crime in those communities. Mr. Schweitzer argues the statistics are skewed because rural residents no longer bother to report crimes, believing that it is futile to call the RCMP.

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Mr. Schweitzer said crime in isolated communities is largely fuelled by the province’s growing substance-abuse problem, and he specifically points to meth addicts. Opioid abuse is also high in Alberta. Mr. Schweitzer said stiffer sentences would mean more criminals with addictions could access treatment.

“The problem that we have right now is these individuals aren’t even facing sentences that would qualify them for a drug-treatment court," he said. “The way that the current system is structured, these people are in and out of our court system so quickly, you can’t even have the option of giving them treatment.

“You don’t even have the ability to help deal with the root cause as to why they are in your criminal justice system,” he said.

People addicted to certain drugs, including opioids and methamphetamine, who plead guilty to non-violent crimes they committed to support their habit, can apply to be part of Alberta’s drug-treatment court system. To be eligible in Calgary, offenders must likely face between one and three years in jail. In Edmonton, the qualifying range is between one and four years, the government said. The programs, which can last longer than a year, give offenders a chance to avoid prison if they complete a drug-treatment program and clear other requirements such as passing urine tests and stabilizing themselves in a community.

The government hopes the threat of long jail terms will prompt offenders to participate in the drug-treatment court. However, access to the drug-treatment court system is limited. Annual capacity in Calgary and Edmonton tops out at 40, leaving eligible offenders on waiting lists. Alberta said late last year it would spend $20-million over four years to create 80 spots and extend the system to other cities.

Alberta’s special courts cost $713,000 to operate in the most recent fiscal year, according to statistics provided by Alberta’s Justice Ministry. The federal government kicked in $500,000 of that, with the province picking up the rest. Spending on the drug-treatment courts in Calgary and Edmonton will climb to a combined $1.56-million a year for the next three years as a result of the expansion plan, the ministry said. Ottawa’s contribution is locked in until March 31, 2023. These figures do not include the costs related to opening new drug-treatment courts.

In prison, treatment for addictions is also difficult to access, according to Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, which advocates on behalf of B.C. prisoners. Longer stretches in jail, she said, will not translate into a better chance of entering a treatment program.

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“You’ll have better access to harder drugs and no access to health care," she said.

The waiting lists for opioid-replacement therapy in federal prisons are lengthy in the Prairies, according to Correctional Service Canada. For example, at Bowden Institution, which is about 100 kilometres north of Calgary, 24 prisoners were being treated with buprenorphine naloxone, 19 were using methadone and 55 more were on the waiting list in July, 2019.

The federal Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Department did not address whether it is on board with Alberta’s proposal. Bill Blair, the department’s minister, “recently had a productive meeting” with Mr. Schweitzer and "looks forward to continued discussions,” according to a statement from spokesperson Mary-Liz Power.

The Criminal Code’s sentencing principles provide judges with an outline regarding aggravating factors. Offences motivated by race or sexual orientation, for example, could be considered aggravating factors. Crimes where offenders abused their position of trust or harmed a minor are also listed as examples.

Lisa Kerr, a law professor at Queen’s University, argued Alberta’s push is redundant because judges already have the authority to consider the circumstances surrounding offences. Further, folding rural crime into sentencing principles would not prevent offences, she said.

“There’s very little evidence that legislated factors like that have any effect on deterring crime,” she said.

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