Committee Grills Minister Over Minimum Sentence Exceptions
The Liberal-dominated Senate, a day after rewriting a Harper government crime bill, signalled that it will alter another piece of law-and-order legislation that would automatically jail drug dealers and marijuana growers for the first time in Canada.
A Senate committee grilled Justice Minister Rob Nicholson on his proposed legislation Thursday -- particularly an element allowing drug pushers in six Canadian cities to escape jail time if they go through drug treatment courts -- an option that is not available elsewhere because drug courts exist only in those cities.
"How can you bring in all of these minimum sentences and say, if there are drug treatment courts in your area, you won't have to go to jail for the minimum sentence?" Liberal Senator George Baker said after the hearing.
"I think definitely amendments will be put forth by Liberal members and by Conservative members."
Judges would have leeway to exempt certain offenders from jail, provided they enter treatment programs imposed through drug courts that exist in Vancouver, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa.
Conservative Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, an expert in drug policy, warned Nicholson that the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee intends to put his bill -- a centrepiece of the government's law-and-order agenda -- through "rigorous" scrutiny.
The committee's signal that it will not rubber-stamp the contentious legislation came only a day after Nicholson blasted the upper chamber for "gutting" another bill that would eliminate a judicial practice, when sentencing offenders, to credit them on a two-for-one basis for each day already spent in detention.
The bill has the support of the opposition parties in the Commons, including the Liberals.
The Senate actions have become a political football in the House of Commons, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused the Liberals on Thursday of pretending they support crime bills, only to stand by while they are stymied by their unelected counterparts.
"What the Liberal party should do ... is go down to the Senate and, instead of playing this two-faced game where they pretend to support tough-on-crime legislation but block it in the Senate, they should tell their own senators to be honest with the Canadian people, to pass that legislation and stop letting criminals get away," said Harper.
Liberal MP David McGuinty countered that the Conservatives are revelling in the Senate scrutiny because they can use it as a springboard to reinforce their tough-on-crime message and take aim at their Liberal opponents.
The drug bill sailed through the House of Commons earlier this year after the Liberals teamed up with the Conservatives, despite grumbling within Grit ranks that they were being told to support a bad bill so they wouldn't be accused of being soft on crime.
The bill would also strip judges of their discretion on whether to incarcerate drug traffickers, including offenders who grow and then sell as few as five marijuana plants.
The proposed legislation was lambasted by 13 of 16 witnesses who appeared before the House of Commons justice committee during public hearings last spring.
Critics have warned the legislation would flood jails and imprison drug addicts and young people rather than drug kingpins, who will continue to thrive, while small-time dealers are knocked out of commission.
The bill would impose one-year mandatory jail terms for marijuana-dealing when it's linked to organized crime or a weapon is involved.
Minimum sentences would be increased to two years for dealing drugs, such as cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine, to young people, or pushing drugs near a school or other places frequented by youths.
By Janice Tibbetts
October 8, 2009