One year after the House of Commons passed the Conservatives' sweeping omnibus crime bill, Canada's Justice Minister says the measures were necessary to boost confidence in the justice system and better support victims of crime.
The Safe Streets and Communities Act, previously known as Bill C-10, combined nine distinct pieces of criminal justice legislation, including new mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes and sexual offences against children, as well as tougher treatment for violent young offenders.
Many of the changes were criticized by criminologists and lawyers' groups, who said they would be costly to implement and could make it more difficult for offenders to reintegrate into society after their release from prison. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Rob Nicholson addresses the bill's impact on the justice system so far and explains why he believes the changes were important.
What, in your view, has been accomplished since this legislation was passed last year?
I've had good feedback across the country. I think people were particularly pleased that children would be better protected from sexual predators. I think most people understand the need for increased penalties for those involved with organized crime and drug dealers.
Provinces and territories have raised significant concerns about the cost of implementing the legislation. Are those concerns justified?
From our end, we provide more money each year to the provinces, and it has gone up considerably since we've taken office, and we will continue to provide more funds for the provinces. … I always point out to people that there is a cost to crime, yes, and it's mainly borne by victims.
A number of researchers have said that mandatory minimum sentences don't do anything to reduce crime.
The penalties are a response to the seriousness of the crimes. And again, I say to people, have a look at what it is we're proposing. And people will lose confidence in the criminal justice system if there are individuals who are charged and convicted of sexually exploiting children and they don't end up in jail. And so we have to maintain peoples' confidence in the criminal justice system.
What are you trying to achieve with mandatory minimum sentences? Are they about reform and rehabilitation, or about punishment?
I think it sends out a message to the individual and to society about the seriousness with which the government takes the offences in question. Again, we have to send out the message, for instance, to people who bring drugs into this country that yes, there are serious consequences. You're not looking at probation, you're not looking at house arrest, you're looking at jail time if you get involved with organized crime.
Your government has put a lot of emphasis on the need to support victims of crime.
We're refocusing what's happening in the criminal justice system to ensure that the rights of victims are considered. I hear this all the time, and I get all kinds of examples from people where they felt that their interests weren't taken into consideration or it was difficult for them to get a remedy.
Why has the government proceeded with anti-crime legislation at a time when Canada's crime rate is falling?
I mean, it depends on which type of crime you're talking about. Among other things, child sexual offences, those crimes are going up, drug crimes are going up, and so, again, much of what the Safe Streets and Communities Act was focused on was child sexual offences and drug crimes. But, again, we don't base it on exactly, reading the latest trends in these things. We want there to be less crime in this country.
This interview has been edited and condensed.