Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews appeared before the Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs Feb 1 as the omnibus crime bill began 11 days of hearings. With just an hour allotted for questions on the entire bill, senators quickly objected that there wasn’t time to get answers.
After meeting last week with provincial and territorial counterparts, Nicholson insisted they confirmed a “widespread support for safe streets and communities” but dismissed concerns about costs. Nicholson and Toews, along with Conservative Senator Bob Runciman, cast doubt on the Ontario public safety minister’s assertion that the bill would create 1,500 new prisoners in the province.
Critics, including John Edwards, the former commissioner of Correctional Service Canada, and Ed McIsaac, former executive director of the Office of the Correctional Investigator, have also said the bill will contribute to overcrowding in prisons. Others have worried that the bill threatens successful harm-reduction programs.
“Predicting the future impact of a bill is very difficult,” Toews said, explaining that department projections of an increase in prison populations from 14,000 to 17,800 under previous legislation did not result in that rise and that the current federal prison population has just dropped to 14,800 from 15,000.
Noting that Nicholson had a cold, Liberal Senator George Baker said that if he were to offer Nicholson a Tylenol 3 – which contains codeine, a controlled substance – the new rules under the bill would mean he could be charged with trafficking, and if he offered Nicholson a second Tylenol 3, he would be in line for a mandatory minimum sentence. If that second offer were at the University of Ottawa campus, the mandatory minimum would be two years.
Nicholson dismissed the concerns, stating that there are specific requirements for amounts of substances being trafficked within the Criminal Code.
When pressed by Liberal Senator Joan Fraser, who noted that the legal definition of trafficking includes giving or offering to give a controlled substance, department officials confirmed that while the minister focuses on the business of drug trafficking, the bill’s scope is wider than that.
Nicholson could not answer Fraser’s question about whether there is a formula, grid or set of guidelines to establish the baselines of mandatory minimum sentences, but he did say that part of the need for the mandatory minimums was to eliminate the possibility of house arrest for the types of offences within the bill.
Department officials later noted they look at how courts are currently sentencing and balance an expected minimum against the existing maximum sentences in the Criminal Code.