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Conservative crime bill stokes fear and clogs courts, group warns

Though touted as a message of hope for victims, the Conservative government's omnibus crime bill won't actually help them at all, a seasoned victims-rights advocate says.

Steve Sullivan, the former federal ombudsman for victims of crime, argues the Conservatives – specifically Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews – have a "very narrow view" of the needs of victims.

Bill C-10 is being sold as legislation that will benefit victims when it's likely to do just the opposite, Mr. Sullivan said. Crown counsel, he added, are warning the bill would increase their caseloads, which would in turn mean more plea bargains and dropped charges.

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"That's not an agenda that benefits victims of crimes who turn to the system for justice," he told reporters on Parliament Hill Thursday.

"They equate victim rights and victim needs with how you deal with the offender. ... So if you punish the offender enough, the victim will be happy," Mr. Sullivan said, accusing the Conservatives of acting on ideology rather than hard facts. "I think everything this government does is political."

Instead of spending money on incarceration, taxpayer funds could be better used helping the victims of these crimes cope, Mr. Sullivan said.

Bill C-10 proposes a number of major changes to the justice and corrections systems that have stirred controversy, particularly the introduction of new mandatory minimum sentences.

"This legislation responds directly to recommendations put forth by victims and law enforcement, many of whom testified before the Senate committee in the past week," said Julie Di Mambro, press secretary to Mr. Nicholson.

Known as the Safe Streets and Communities Act, the omnibus bill amends nine laws and would establish new mandatory minimum prison sentences for a series of crimes. It has already passed in the House of Commons and is likely to pass in the Senate, where the Conservatives also hold a majority.

Mr. Sullivan was also joined by members of a group of lawyers, judges and politicians called the Smart Justice Network, which says the government seems unwilling to hear the facts.

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"I think fear is at the basis of much of the government's work here," said David Daubney, a former Progressive Conservative MP. "What it's going to do, unfortunately, is make Canadians, I think, more fearful and less safe."

Mr. Daubney said the Senate should consider bringing in several changes to the bill, including giving judges the option to sentence an offender with less than the mandatory minimum as long as they outline the special circumstances for the exception.

He also said the bill should be phased-in, allowing provinces and territories to financially plan for the increased costs of incarceration for a "burgeoning" prison population, and conducting a mandatory review in five years time.

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