Monday night, sometime after the sun had gone down, Stephen Harper fulfilled his promise in overhauling the Canadian justice system. Bill C-10 passed through Parliament notwithstanding days of procedural delay from the opposition, and now the hypotheticals have become real. What will it cost? When does it come into effect? How will I or you be personally affected by these changes? (Well, most of Canada is asking these questions: Quebec has started asking, “What can we do to minimize its impact as much as possible?”)
Whether you were for or against these changes, and there were arguments aplenty on both sides, the reality is that this is soon to be the law of the land. This post should help you navigate your way through some of the questions above.
First, the cost. Stephen King once said that one achieves good at a terrific cost, and if he’s right, the Conservatives may actually be onto something. That is, if you believe the opposition. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has said the bill will cost Canadian taxpayers roughly $78 million over 5 years. In the grand scheme of things, that is not much for a sovereign state’s budget. These costs are said to come from increased penalties for drug crimes and new mandatory minimums for sexual offenders. On the other hand, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page estimated the cost at that same time to be over $3 billion. Ontario’s Correctional Service Minister says the bill will cost that province over $1 billion alone.
Why the discrepancy? Vic Toews has also cited that there are no extra “federal” costs to the bill. This is more or less accurate. The problem the provinces are having is they are arguing that they will be footing the bill for constructing the new prisons to house the increased number of inmates, which is the primary reason Quebec is opposing the move. Nothing about us without us is the Quebec mantra, and they are crying foul over the lack of provincial consultation. Whatever a particular province’s stance, Mr. Toews has admitted that the provinces will be footing at least some of the bill: no agreed upon numbers, to the best of my knowledge, exist…
When does it come into effect? That’s the trickier question. Basically what has happened is that Parliament has passed the bill. All that’s needed now is Royal Assent: the Governor General’s approval. This is certain to happen, and will more than likely happen within a week. It doesn’t end there, though. As Andrew Nichols said on CBC News this morning, it’s a bit unclear yet as to whether the entire bill will take effect right away, or whether some changes will be delayed. Bill C-10 modifies a number of things: the Youth Criminal Justice Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, to name two. Some changes may take longer to implement than others – after all, if we do need more prisons, they take time to build – so the best I can say is keep your ear to the ground and keep watching for what happens after Royal Assent is given.
How will these changes affect someone who’s going through the justice system right now? More than likely, not at all: there’s a strong presumption that changes to the law, particularly criminal law, are not retroactive. If you’re charged under a law today, it is that law that normally carries you through. How will these changes affect someone who may be charged in the future? Potentially, quite drastically. The Canadian Council for Refugees say the changes basically give a veto power to government officials to refuse work permits for women for degrading and humanizing jobs such as exotic dancing, and does nothing to fix the problem of such jobs getting approved for immigrants in the first place. The Montreal Gazette notes that increased mandatory minimums in regards to youth will be in place, although only for serious offences such as murder and aggravated sexual assault. Notwithstanding that, the argument in Quebec is that it ignores larger social problems and runs on a false assumption that harsher sentences deter criminals, at a time when crime rates are already dropping for other reasons. The Canadian Bar Association also made the point in their submissions about the fact that, in particular, the harsher treatment of marijuana offences completely ignores the underlying problems of addiction, and that to remove the possibility of conditional sentences for some of those offenders is to deny them the ability to rehabilitate, in turn potentially creating career criminals.
At the end of the day, if you or someone you love is faced with a legal issue that falls under the rubric of Bill C-10, the fact is that you will be treated harsher and with more of an assumption that you ought to be punished severely as a deterrent. Stephen Harper has always said that Canadians support him on his tough-on-crime agenda, and this is what it looks like. Unfortunately, though, if you’re looking for a deeper analysis of the problems that gender, race, and socioeconomic status plays in the criminal justice system, you won’t find it here.