What’s Wrong With Harper’s Omnibus Crime Bill

Prime Minister Harper will be launching his tough-on-crime agenda today. Our criminal justice system is by no means perfect, but the omnibus crime bill will send us back to a 19th century punishment model. Here are some reasons why Canadians need to speak out against this legislation.

The former U.S. drug czar (Asa Hutchinson) has encouraged Canada not to make the same mistakes the U.S. made. The two mistakes he cited were mandatory minimum sentences, and insufficient attention to rehabilitative programs.

1. The cost of the Harper crime agenda will be colossal, and a large part of it (some say most) will be borne by the provinces, who are responsible for implementing whatever the feds pass. So provinces and territories (many of them in elections as we speak) will be expected to pay for additional courts, clerks, prisons, Crown Attorneys, judges, sheriffs, court reporters and so on. And the numbers are high—$5 billion over 5 years for the one piece of legislation which was examined by the Parliamentary Budget Officer. The new drug sentences alone will increase numbers of offenders by a huge amount. The Corrections department is one of the few which is receiving huge increases in its budget as we speak.

2. Virtually all of the crime legislation is directed towards increasing punishment by way of more prison terms for more people and for longer. Virtually nothing in any of the legislation does anything to prevent crime (as the Conservatives claim), help victims (as they claim) or target guns, gangs, drugs and organized crime (as they claim). The Harper government’s stated objectives will not be met by the omnibus crime bill.

3. Other jurisdictions, notably the United States, have rejected the Harper approach. Newt Gingrich is fronting a group called Right on Crime which advocates for less incarceration. Ronald Reagan presided over a huge reduction in incarceration when he was governor of California. Maggie Thatcher refused to allow incarceration rates to rise in Britain. Many states are abolishing mandatory minimum sentences and reducing the proportion of sentences which must be served before release.

4. Canada is moving in the wrong direction, and the results will not be pretty. I predict there will be expanding deficits at all levels, an increase in misery for all parties, including offenders’ families and communities, and victims (who in fact advocate for improvements in preventive and rehabilitative programs). The picture becomes darker when you consider that up to 80-90% of offenders in some institutions are addicts (mostly to alcohol), and up to 40% have mental illnesses. A huge proportion are Aborignal people. Many offenders are homeless, illiterate, victims of sexual abuse, and so on. What is significant is that we have the means to deal with all of these conditions—we know how, and the resources required would be a fraction of the budget necessary to incarcerate so many new inmates. Dealing with these issues would not only reduce crime but would also make for a healthier community. Because the Conservatives are so concentrated on the punishment model, there will be no resources (and no inclination) to fund the programs necessary to deal with these fundamental problems.

5. Journalists continually state that the omnibus crime bill is considered necessary by the Harper government because the crime legislation was otherwise “unpassable” or because of “obstructive measures” taken by the opposition. This is demonstrably not true. The opposition never got a chance to oppose most of the crime legislation because it never came to a vote: most of the laws died on the order paper when Mr. Harper prorogued Parliament twice and when he called the 2008 election. Most of the rest of them were never brought forward in a timely manner.

The Conservatives have the majority they need to pass this legislation. The only thing that might give them pause would be a public groundswell against the law. If for no other reason than financial, we should be making our voices heard.

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 and Lorimer Publishing will be releasing her book on the tough-on-crime agenda this fall.


  1. Thanks for the insightful analysis. If we are truly interested in living in safer communities, we need to invest in front-end crime prevention and support for community members who are struggling.

  2. The other issue in this omnibus bill is the recycling of Bill 23B, which would increase the time it takes to apply for a ‘pardon’ from 3-5 years (established in Bill 23A) to 5-10 years for those charged with non-serious offenses.

    For those with indictable offenses the minimum is 10 years (as an example, driving while impaired can be an indictable offense).

    Imagine some young guy in his twenties with a DWI charge on his record. I bet he’s stiff-armed by every employer because they all do background checks now. He would be in his 30’s before he could even apply to clear his name.

    If Bill 23B passes, I’d bet guys in these situations would become cynical, desperate and would likely turn to crime.

  3. A fictitious press conference that will never happen…… on crime and crime bills…….with the Harper government.

    “Larry Elford here for investor advocates…….A couple of questions Mr. Harper……..ahh, the extensive work you are doing towards fighting blue collar crime and building new prisons is, uuum, surprising, since this type of crime is in decline, as our population ages. Two questions please”:

    “In the recent sub prime mortgage collapse, $32 billion of sub prime mortgage investments were frozen, collapsed and had to be bailed out by taxpayers and others in Canada. If we accept Justice Canada stats that the average property crime is about $5000 in value, then this mega crime of selling known toxic investments did damage in Canada equal to about 6 million property crimes. There was not a single prosecution in this matter.

    Question, “Mr. Harper, will there be any focus on attempts to prosecute financial mega criminals, as there seem to be as much or more damage done by them, than by the rest of the crooks in the country?”

    “Following up on the Harper focus on blue collar crime in Bill C21, An Act to amend the Criminal Code sentencing for fraud, financial fraudsters who deal in public markets (like stocks, bonds etc) were allowed to “exempt” themselves from the penalties of this law. This appears to give a free ride around this law to fraudsters from bay Street”. (see http://www.investoradvocates.ca/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=188&p=3072&hilit=c21#p3071 )

    Question, “Mr. Harper, is there a two tier system of justice, one for the poor and middle class, and a less onerous system for the rich or well connected, when greater economic damage appears to be done by our top financial players, with zero consequences and your government continues to focus entirely on small time crime?”

    (1.3 mil property crimes in Canada, source http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/pi/rs/rep-rap/2005/rr05_4/rr05_4.pdf )

  4. Judah, most western nations with the notable exception of our neighbours south think and act the way you suggest. Canada has focused on crime prevention in the past. “Harper’s Government” has yet to explain itselve and likely never will because it is ideo-logically based, and not based on current logic.

  5. We are feeling more and more discouraged by the backward moves made by the Harper government and the powers that be in the U.S. The enlightened future which seemed within reach forty years ago has been systematically destroyed by fearful little men who didn’t get their way as children. It is time we fought back. This crime bill is a return to a punitive model based on primitive Biblical teachings that never worked, never produced anything of worth to humanity, and were rejected by educated civilized people centuries ago. Many studies have established that there is little correlation between punishment and the reduction of undesirable behaviour. Use your own family as a model, or a classroom. Punishment results in an unhappy, unproductive environment. We all know that. What happened to young Stephen to make him so mad and why does he think more prisons is going to help him feel better?

  6. – Re: item 1:
    What if the provinces haven’t the funds or the will to implement the crime legislation?

    – Is it the threat of the crime bill that is to deter crime?

  7. Paula, thank you for speaking up, thank you for writing this piece and your upcoming book. I welcome any information about how to get involved. This is a chart-topper as far as ‘immoral and harmful for everyone’ legislation goes.

  8. Thank you Paula for writing this excellent piece. As a criminologist and restorative practitioner, I couldn’t agree more!

    It is disheartening that the Harper government now has a majority to push this crime bill through. It would be a horrible and extremely costly mistake to do so.

    Yes we must make our voices heard and do what we can to further educate people about what this bill truly means and to also provide information about effective alternatives like restorative justice.

  9. There is one way only to stop HARPER.We have to protest in the streets,by mail,by phone,by internet ,we have to scream as loud as we can.Even if we go to prison for it.WE ARE FACING A POLICE STATE.

  10. Great article, Paula, and I look forward to the book. Some very insightful comments have been made as well. Elizabeth poses some interesting questions about our federation. Federal crime legislation must be implemented by the provinces but they are generally consulted on proposed reforms and provide feedback on implementation issues. I am not sure that provincial governments have had a chance to cost the impact of this legislation on the provincial taxpayers. Most of the costs of this massive overhaul will be borne by the provinces and, in turn, the provincial taxpayers, who also might like a voice in whether this is the best use of their resources to make streets and communities safer. The number of new offenders coming into custody will overwhelm already crowded facilities and require massive prison construction efforts to meet minimum international and domestic standards. Some are calling on Parliament to delay proclaming Bill C-10 in force until provinces, territories, and federal governments can assure Parliament that the increase in offenders can be accommodated without exceeding 100% of the available prison capacity and without inflating the debt.

  11. we do not need more prisons payed by the tax payers , Canada needs more Jobs!! $5 billion over 5 years for the one piece of legislation which was examined by the Parliamentary Budget Officer..that is a insane amount of Money!! when provinces are hurting for Money!!

  12. Since I don’t have time to read the entire bill myself, is there anybody who has read it who can give a brief summary of each offensive section? So far, I’ve observed that the Harper regime wants to increase the minimum sentences for sexual offenses, which is one thing I can agree with them on. I would love to see rapists and child molesters taken out of circulation for a good long time, so I would actually like to see that section of the bill strengthened rather than weakened. I assume that people are objecting to other, lesser offenses being punished more harshly, but I’m not sure what these are.

  13. Thanks for posting this, we at Occupy Newfoundland are marching to our House of Assembly on Monday to rally for the House to reopen. Opposing this bill together as a Province is something which I hope can come out of it. Thanks for the extra info!!!

  14. The mandaTORY sentences for growing a few pot plants are longer than the sentences for sexual assault. It m,akes no sense at all to imprison people for growing as little as 6 cannabis plants. A majority of Canadians would rather see it legalized and taxed, and its use is pretty much socially acceptable in most circles in this country. Why would we enact mandaTORY minimum prison time for something that most Canadians don’t even consider rude behaviour, much less criminal? eND Prohibition.

  15. I’m surprised that there’s no comments on here that disagree with Paula. Evidence suggests that crime drops with stiffer punishment. Anyone ever check out Singapore’s crime rates? I also am surprised that the US’s opinion on crime punishment matters, considering their crime rates. Just something to think about.

  16. How about, It’s a communist Bill and against 4 of our constitutional rights. This whole Bill is just going to cost us money when people won’t stand for our country becoming communist.

  17. Thanks for the article! I’m hosting a letter writing party to oppose C-10 (you can find out a bit more over at occupymailboxes.wordpress.com if you want) and I printed out a copy of this article as a source of information. I hope that’s ok! Thanks again!

  18. Hi have a question. Is it too late to do something about this bill? Do Canadians still have a fighting chance to change this law and how can I do my part?
    I write to you in fear I will not have the chance to get a “pardon” before my grandmother dies of old age and have the opportunity to visit her in the USA without having to apply for a U.S entry waiver . Under the old law I would have officially been allowed to apply for a pardon as of May 24th, 2013.

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