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Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives at Xstrata Nickel's Raglan Mine in the northern Nunavik region of Quebec on Friday, August 23, 2013.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is proposing new legislation that would increase penalties for those convicted of sexually exploiting children.

"We must create a justice system that is more responsive to victims, and especially more responsive to children and to the families of children who have been victimized by sexual predators," Mr. Harper told a room full of cabinet ministers, senators, police officers and journalists during a visit to Toronto.

Among the proposals is a move to ensure offenders convicted of exploiting multiple children will serve their sentences consecutively one after another instead of at the same time. As well, the Prime Minister hopes to increase maximum and minimum penalties for child sexual offenders, and ensure that spouses of those charged with child pornography will have to testify in court. Mr. Harper declined to say what he hopes the new penalties will be, saying the details will be decided upon in parliament.

More than 3,900 sexual assaults against children were reported to Canadian police in 2012, according to a news release from the Prime Minister's Office. This is an increase of three per cent from 2011.

Mr. Harper criticized the justice system as having become progressively unbalanced and skewed in favour of offenders. "Indeed, the system has become profoundly centered on the welfare of the criminal," he said.

He brought up the example of Gordon Stuckless who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting 24 boys and was sentenced to two years less a day in 1997. The sentence was appealed and extended to five years. Mr. Stuckless got parole after serving two-thirds of his five year term.

Lianna MacDonald, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, welcomed Mr. Harper's announcement as one that would better protect children from sexual abuse.

"Longer sentences deter someone from committing future offences", Ms. MacDonald said. "For children, it is very, very difficult to navigate the criminal justice system. ... When they do tell someone, really, the criminal justice system is stacked against them."

Ms. MacDonald said she has seen many cases where prison sentences do not adequately fit the crime or reflect the number of victims. She also said she supports legislation that would force spouses to testify in cases of child abuse and child pornography.

"When you have instances when you have an actual parent offending against their child, that child is in a far more precarious situation because the person is in a position of trust," Ms. MacDonald said. "So, when you look at the rights of children to be safe and protected, and we look at the role of a parent, we would say that a spouse coming forward and having to proceed on that front is very important."