Thoughts on the Speech From The Throne

Yesterday the Governor General delivered the Conservative Government's Speech from the throne.  The full text of the speech can be found here

The speech dealt with many matters that are of fundamental importance to Canadians - like the ability to purchase unbundled TV channels.  Directly following this heady TV policy announcement the Conservative Government laid out their criminal law priorities.  Yesterday I wrote that I expected to be disappointed with the announced criminal justice policies and I was. 

With respect to criminal law policy here is an excerpt of the Conservative announcements: 

Supporting Victims and Punishing Criminals

Our Government believes that the justice system exists to protect law-abiding citizens and our communities. For too long, the voices of victims have been silenced, while the system coddled criminals. Our Government has worked to re-establish Canada as a country where those who break the law are punished for their actions; where penalties match the severity of crimes committed; where the rights of victims come before the rights of criminals.

Our Government will introduce a Victims Bill of Rights to restore victims to their rightful place at the heart of our justice system.

Canadians are rightfully alarmed when violent offenders found not criminally responsible for their actions are released into our communities. Our Government will re-introduce legislation to ensure that public safety comes first.
But we must do even more to protect our children. Child predators should never be let off with only a single sentence for multiple crimes against children. Canadians demand that those who prey on our children pay the full price for every devastated life. Our Government will end sentencing discounts for child sex offenders.
It is also unacceptable that dangerous and violent offenders are released into our communities before serving their full sentences. Our Government will end the practice of automatic early release for serious repeat offenders.
But for the worst of all criminals, even this is not enough. Canadians do not understand why the most dangerous criminals would ever be released from prison. For them, our Government will change the law so that a life sentence means a sentence for life.
Canadians also know that prostitution victimizes women and threatens the safety of our communities. Our Government will vigorously defend the constitutionality of Canada’s prostitution laws.

As expected there is not much evidence based policy to be found here.  More troubling is the fact that the Conservatives continue to fundamentally miss-frame any debate about criminal law policy.

The Conservatives contend that "For too long, the voices of victims have been silenced, while the system coddled criminals." 

This is simply untrue.  There are many sections in the Criminal Code that apply to victims (or alleged victims).  Complainants can, in the appropriate case, testify via video link or behind a screen so as not to face the accused.  Complainants can seek the assistance of support persons while providing testimony.  In some cases complainants need not testify and their prior statements can be read into evidence.  In all cases victims have access to a robust victims service office.

Additionally, after a conviction and when a court determines the appropriate sentence, victims have the right to provide a victim impact statement - they are not silenced as the Conservatives claim.  Courts must consider victim input.  Section 722 of the Criminal Code directs:

For the purpose of determining the sentence to be imposed on an offender or whether the offender should be discharged pursuant to section 730 in respect of any offence, the court shall consider any statement that may have been prepared in accordance with subsection (2) of a victim of the offence describing the harm done to, or loss suffered by, the victim arising from the commission of the offence. 

Quite simply, victims are not silenced and to suggest otherwise is misleading. 

More importantly criminals are not coddled - again the Conservative are lacking in intellectual honesty.  The 'criminals' that the Conservatives talk about are actually 'accused persons' - who are presumed innocent.  People accused of crimes have constitutional, statutory, and common law rights; for example: the presumption of innocence, rights against unreasonable search and seizure, and rights against self incrimination.  These rights form the bedrock of our justice system.  Giving life to fundamental rights such as these is not coddling criminals and to suggest any different is disingenuous. 

The Conservatives also announced that it is "unacceptable that dangerous and violent offenders are released into our communities before serving their full sentences."

Indeed the Conservatives go further to suggest that "Canadians do not understand why the most dangerous criminals would ever be released from prison. For them, our Government will change the law so that a life sentence means a sentence for life."

I don't hold out much hope that the government will listed to the evidence about the  benefits of our parole system.

For example, studies have found that:

  • Eliminating early parole produced no consistent effects on crime rates;
  • Parole is advantageous given the increasing human and financial costs associated with prison, investing in effective reentry programs may well be one of the best investments society can make;
  • Supervising offenders in the community effectively can reduce criminality among those on parole or otherwise serving their sentences in the community;
  • Although violations of parole do occur, the number of offenders who meet the terms and conditions of their release provides impressive evidence of the effectiveness of the parole system in Canada.;
  • 50 per cent of offenders who were released directly from prison 12 years ago, without the benefit of gradual and controlled supervision, were later re-admitted for having committed new offenses. By contrast, only 10 per cent of those who were released on parole and completed their sentences under parole supervision, were subsequently re-admitted to federal penitentiary with new offenses.

Obviously there can be a debate about the evidence for or against any policy initiative.  However, in addressing release and parole the Conservatives ignore their own literature and give no confidence that there will be a legitimate debate or examination of the evidence. 

As a starting point I would commend the Conservatives start by reading the easy to understand 'Myth vs. Reality' fact sheet produced by the Parole Board of Canada.

Perhaps Canadians don't have a full understanding of the fundamental principles of our criminal justice system.  Education and examination of the evidence over blind ideology should be the answer. 

The Conservative's reckless disregard for evidence based policies does not make us safer. Maybe the Conservatives know this.  Perhaps appeasing their ideological base and not enhancing public safety is the Conservatives ultimate goal.