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A system in change

When local member of Parliament Brent Rathgeber sits in St. Albert's docket court, he is not just another face in the crowd.

When local member of Parliament Brent Rathgeber sits in St. Albert's docket court, he is not just another face in the crowd.

As a member of both the governing party and the justice committee of the House of Commons, he has the ability to shape the laws and rules governing the courts, prisons and the justice system as a whole.

In Ottawa the Conservative government has kept the justice committee busy with a steady flow of legislation that would change the criminal code and create longer sentences for a wide array of crimes.

After introducing several measures in the last session of Parliament, the Conservatives have introduced more than a dozen new bills that would lead to tougher sentences, a more restrictive parole system and new evidence-gathering tools for police officers.

The bills would create new offences for more serious assaults on police officers, auto theft and trafficking in stolen parts.

Other bills would end the faint-hope clause, which allows murderers in certain circumstances to apply for parole after only 15 years, require everyone convicted of a sexually based offence to register as a sex offender and allow for consecutive periods of parole eligibility for multiple murderers.

The legislation would also turn up the pressure on telecommunications companies to turn over information on their customers and come up with ways to intercept text messages and emails.

Another bill, already passed, will end the controversial practice of giving prisoners serving time before their trial double credit towards their final sentence.

At St. Albert's courthouse, most of the people with matters before the court won't be caught in the new laws.

Impaired driving and domestic abuse dominate the court's agenda, but the handful of prisoners will ultimately serve more time and a few alleged drug dealers on the docket could see longer jail sentences.

"Even in a circuit like Edmonton rural, that St. Albert is a part of, some of our changes you will see," said Rathgeber.

Rathgeber said the government is trying to alter the orientation of the system away from a strict focus on the offender.

"Our approach is not exclusively offender-based. We have taken the position and rightfully so, that our system will become more victim-based."

Sanjeev Anand, a former defence lawyer and law professor at the University of Alberta, said the government's interest in the criminal code is astounding.

"This government more than any other government before it has been making tremendous changes to the criminal code," he said. "I can't recall a single calendar year where there have been more changes."

Anand said the changes the government is making are in some cases laudable. He said in some cases they are simply responding to emerging types of crime from new technologies.

He also credits them for paying more attention to fighting crime early than other governments before them.

"They have poured more money into crime prevention than any other government before them."

He said the government has promised voters they would crack down and change the system, but he doesn't believe their changes to the criminal code will make anyone safer.

"They are being true to their stated objective. The issue is, is this good policy for the criminal justice system and I think the answer is no."

Anand said the end result of most of their changes will be more people in prison serving longer sentences and you don't have to look far to see where that leads.

"We are going to end up with a larger prison population and we know that doesn't end up making people safer. If it did, the United States would be Nirvana."

Rathgeber said he understands many people believe that longer sentences will only lead to more violent criminals, but argues the issue isn't settled.

"The jury is out and the science is conflicting on the rehabilitative effect that incarcerations have on offenders."

He said regardless of the impact on the individual offender there is a larger context to consider.

"The simple reality is that for a longer period of time that individual will be removed from society and therefore his or her crime will be denounced and the victim will receive the satisfaction."

Rathgeber said when the Liberal government started to move away form lengthy incarcerations for offenders and shifted more sentences toward house arrest, their motives were financial. Those same governments increased many maximum sentences, but Rathgeber argues that would only have been worthwhile if judges had used them.

"As sentencing judges continued to sentence people at the bottom end of the range and nowhere near approaching the maximum, increasing the maximum became largely irrelevant."

He credits those governments for slaying the deficit, but said it is now time for the pendulum to swing back towards tougher sentences.

Mandatory minimums only move the discretion a judge has, he said, and reflect Parliament's role in directing the system.

"No judge has absolute discretion so the only issue we are debating about is the range."

Crime down

According to virtually every study commissioned, crime in Canada has been on a steady decline for over 30 years.

Rathgeber notes that decline does not include violent crime, but said, regardless, victims of crime don't care about the larger picture — they care that their house has been robbed, their family member assaulted or their car stolen.

Anand agrees the public doesn't see the drop in crime, but blames media images for warping public perception about the issue.

"The public doesn't look at Statistics Canada to decided if they should be afraid. They look at the nightly news."

Anand said the problem with this focus on the criminal justice system is that it diverts resources from other areas.

"The more money we pour into the criminal justice system, the less money there is available for social infrastructure and crime prevention programs."

Though he applauds the government for doing more than their predecessors on crime prevention, Anand said there is still more that could be done to address the problem.

"We are almost dead last among industrialized countries in our investment in early childhood education," he said. "For every dollar spent on early childhood education you are saving hundreds if not thousands in the criminal justice system further down the line."

Rathgeber is not immune to the idea of spending more on social infrastructure and said he would like to see more resources for the mentally ill.

"Those resources need to be put back into the healthcare system to treat them where the results are better and the costs less."

Looking ahead

Rathgeber said crime will likely remain a focus of the government and they still have some work to do. He said youth crime is an especially pressing concern for his constituents.

"The act that I receive the most email and letters on is the Youth Criminal Justice Act."

The sentiment in that correspondence is unanimous.

"There certainly is the perception amongst the vast majority of my constituents that young offenders are subjected to kid glove treatment when they are involved in pretty serious manners."