Bill C-10, known as the omnibus crime bill, or simply the “omnicrime bill”, is the government’s attempt to solve problems with that don’t need to be fixed. The legislation, which sailed through the House of Commons, is now being debated in the Senate, and is expected to become law within weeks.
The omnicrime Bill implements a variety of changes to the criminal justice system. The common theme in these changes is harsher treatment of offenders, even first offenders. The bill seeks to do this by, among other things, increasing sentences across the board, reducing the availability of conditional sentences, and making it more difficult to obtain a pardon.
The legislation is a major political priority for the government, which seeks to win votes by taking a politically popular “tough on crime” approach to an issue which has not been at the forefront of Canadians’ concerns. Crime rates, in fact, have been falling steadily for years, across all range of criminal offences, from theft to murder. But the high profile that a few sensational crimes have generated in the media, such as the serial murders of Colonel Russell Williams, and the Shafia honour killings, play into the government’s claim that they have to “get tough on crime”.
Other than criminal defence lawyers and human rights advocates, who are worried about the law’s impact on the rights of criminal defendants, and fiscal watchdogs who are concerned about the cost of warehousing more and more people in jail, no one is voicing any strong opposition to the bill.
That is a shame.
There are many reasons to oppose this drastic reversal of important criminal law principles and practice. One is the cost; which, in a time of fiscal restraint, simply cannot be justified, especially in the face of falling crime rates. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is an apposite sentiment here, especially when the “fix” will cost billions of dollars we don’t have. Even the word “fix” is inappropriate, since the new threatens to create more problems than it seeks to solve.
Another problem is that the bill reduces the availability of conditional sentences for offenders who do not pose a danger to the community. Conditional sentences, which are jail sentences that offenders serve in the community under strict supervision, are a tool which judges can use to fashion a sentence that addresses the various legal principles without having to resort to the default of incarcerating an otherwise harmless individual.
In conjunction with the reduction in the availability of conditional sentences, the legislation imposes more mandatory minimum sentences, even on first offenders.
This combined approach of reducing flexibility and increasing sentences, and reducing the flexibility and customization with which they can be crafted, undermines the enlightened and democratic view of human rights proclaimed in the Charter, and represents a major step backwards in our evolution as a society.
The more options that judges have to administer justice, the more responsive and flexible the system can be to meet the needs of society and the circumstances of the individual being sentenced. After all, the Charter of Rights, the Criminal Code, and a thousand years of English common law have emphasized that the criminal justice system is intended to treat the defendant as an individual human being, not as a number, or a lesser class of persons. A “one size fits all” approach is neither sensitive to the needs of the individual, nor does it benefit society.
A simplistic, harsh, “black-and-white” approach towards the criminal justice system breeds unfairness, discrimination, and intolerance. It is the refuge of the ignorant, the bigoted, and the bully, and should have no place in a free and democratic Canada.