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Omnibus crime bill won't reduce victimization rates

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Harper, Nicholson and Toews are selling their snake-oil crime bill by presuming to speak on behalf of victims. When told that the crime rate has been declining for 20 years, they reply that one victim is one too many. When advised that statistics do not support their approach, they say most crimes go unreported by their victims. When criticized for the cost of their simplistic and counterproductive legislation, they reply that crimes cost victims $99 billion per year.

Let's be clear. One victim is too many, and whatever we can do to reduce victimization rates should be done. However, the omnibus crime bill will not achieve that objective. It will contribute mightily to a continuing structural deficit because of the colossal costs involved. And paying for this crime bill means programs that effectively prevent crime and rehabilitate offenders will never be funded.

Victims are not all made the same. They do not all support the strictly punishment-oriented approach of the Harper government. Why not let them speak for themselves?

Arlène Gaudreault, President of the Association québécoise Plaidoyer-Victimes, objects to the way politicians are usurping the legitimate voices of victims. She says victims are "increasingly exploited and used as a tool for partisan purposes by political parties of all stripes. Victims' rights are used to legitimize more crime control, but that discourse does not express the position of all victims. . . . It does not serve the cause of victims, and we reject Canada's decision to take this path." She says that "measures to help parents and families reduce poverty and inequality are essential to combat and reduce criminal victimization."

Lorraine Berzins worked in federal penitentiaries for 14 years and was the victim of a hostage-taking. As spokesperson for the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, she says the Harper tough-on-crime agenda "goes so much against all the evidence about what keeps communities safe, and it does so much harm, and they are going to spend so much money, that it's really surprising that there isn't more opposition."

Steve Sullivan of Ottawa Victim Services (and erstwhile Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime) says "victims understand, better than most, that nearly all offenders will eventually be released from prison. . . . The best protection victims, their families, and the community will have is if the offender can learn to modify negative behaviour before he or she is released." In other words, rehabilitation programs are key.

In spite of eloquent pleas by victims' advocates, the Harper government forges ahead with a retrograde, antediluvian and discredited approach to criminal justice. Its only "solution" for any and all crimes is a long prison sentence.

There is virtually no hope that the omnibus crime bill can be defeated now that Mr. Harper has his majority. So we turn to Steve Sullivan, who recently sent a desperate crie de coeur to the Conservative caucus:

I believe the ministers when they say they care about victims. . . . Here is what they should do -- at the next cabinet meeting, tell the Prime Minister he should abandon his crime agenda and put the bulk of those resources into programs for victims and prevention. When the Prime Minister says no, and we all know he will, then they should stand up for victims and walk out.

Paula Mallea, B.A., M.A., Ll.B, practised criminal law for 15 years in Toronto, Kingston, and Manitoba. She acted mainly as defence counsel, with a part-time stint as prosecutor, and spent hundreds of hours in penitentiaries representing inmates. She is a Research Associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She is the author of The Fear Factor: Stephen Harper's Tough On Crime Agenda. Her book, Fearmonger, a detailed critique of the Harper tough-on-crime agenda, published by Lorimer, is available in bookstores and online.

This article first appeared on Behind the Numbers.

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