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NDP Leader Jack Layton discusses his party's anti-gang strategy in Surrey, B.C., on April 7, 2011. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
NDP Leader Jack Layton discusses his party's anti-gang strategy in Surrey, B.C., on April 7, 2011. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

NDP pledge aims to stamp out gang-related crime at its source Add to ...

NDP Leader Jack Layton takes umbrage at Conservative suggestions that his approach to justice is soft on crime.

The problem with the Conservative approach is that it seems to have only one dimension to it - "which is to build more and more prisons," Mr. Layton said. "Mr. Harper seems to think preventing crime is being soft on crime. That's ridiculous."

The Tory government fell with many of its crime bills still on the order paper. But others had been passed into law.

If the New Democrats were to form government after this election, Mr. Layton said, they would take a look at each of those bills, on a case-by-case basis, to determine which should be kept and which should be scrapped.

"We have supported about half of them," he said. "We have voted against roughly half of them. We have made some important amendments to some of the bills and therefore supported them because our changes were accepted."

The New Democrats and the Conservatives hold very different views about safe injection sites like Insite, a supervised injection site in Vancouver that allows drug addicts to take illegal drugs in a safe environment and provides access to treatment. The Conservatives would scrap it. The NDP would expand the sites across the country.

"This approach to dealing with the reduction of crime related to drugs has been shown in study after study after study to be very effective," Mr. Layton said. "And it really fits in with that notion of prevention. To try to drive people further and further into an underground world simply accelerates and magnifies the amount of crime that you are going to have associated with it."

The Conservatives also entirely reject the suggestion that marijuana should be legalized, or even decriminalized. The NDP officially supports legalization. But Mr. Layton was less than definitive on the issue on Thursday.

"I think it's an important issue to debate," he said, "There's a lot of issues associated with it. Marijuana has changed a lot since my youth, I can tell you that, [or]so I'm informed. I am told it's a heck of a lot stronger."

But there is nothing positive, said the NDP Leader, about the Conservative approach to drug use, "which is to put a criminal cast on absolutely everything, it seems, they don't like."

Canada's crime rate is falling, but some violent crimes like attempted murder, extortion and criminal harassment have increased. And crime has been a particular concern for the suburbs around Vancouver and no party can win votes here without a plan for tackling it.

"Surrey is a rapidly growing city that's brimming with potential. It's also a community that has been rocked by gang violence," Mr. Layton said at a community centre in this south mainland city on Wednesday.

The Conservatives have tackled crime largely by imposing mandatory minimum sentences and keeping criminals in jail for longer periods. But the New Democrats say the government's own research shows longer sentences do not make communities safer and may actually increase the chances that a convict will re-offend.

Mr. Layton said he would instead focus on "prevention, protection and prosecution."

The NDP would provide crime-prevention resources to communities by increasing support to the National Crime Prevention Centre by $100-million.

They would increase the Youth Gang Prevention Fund from $7.5-million to $16-million and make that fund permanent.

And they would invest $75-million a year in shelters for abused women.

They also aim to put 2,500 more police officers on the street every year by doubling the Police Officers Recruitment Fund, and they would try to find ways to reduce the administrative and paper burden on officers.

The NDP said it would make it illegal to recruit people into criminal gangs and start an anti-gang strategy in prisons to ensure that they do not become "crime schools" to train gang members.

In addition, the party would create standalone offences for home invasions and car-jackings. And it would ensure appropriate care is provided for mentally ill offenders.

The total cost of the proposed crime initiatives, the New Democrats said, is $250-million annually.

"If we can prevent a young person from getting involved in gang activity and criminal activity at the earliest possible stages, we are all better off," Mr. Layton said. "We then need to ensure that we've got the ability to follow up if there is crime in the streets and that's why we want to see more police officers."

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