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Victims’ rights not on public radar
Article mis en ligne le jeudi 22 mars 2012

The federal government’s omnibus crime bill passed by a final vote of 157-127 in the House of Commons on March 12 and is now en route to the Senate where the Conservatives also hold a majority.

Critics say that The Safe Streets and Communities Act, which bundles 9 previous bills into one omnibus bill, will expand the prison system at increased cost to the provinces as a result of increased prison populations.

According to Irwin Cotler, MP for Mount Royal riding, prevention, not after-the-fact punishment, is the most effective deterrent to crime. The veteran human rights advocate said that not only do mandatory sentences not work, but by placing people in overcrowded prisons for extended periods of time they are, in fact, more likely to reoffend. He maintains that we need to focus on prevention efforts such as education and workforce training instead. “We all want to prevent crime,” he said.

However, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said that any increased cost to federal and provincial budgets is worth it because of the cost of crime to society and the psychological cost to victims. But to what extent does the bill actually benefit victims?

Sue O’Sullivan, the federal ombudsman for victims of crime - an office created by the Conservatives - doesn’t think that victims’ rights are on the public radar or that the crime bill changes the optics much. She said that while Bill C-10 addresses some of the recommendations in her report, it doesn’t go far enough.

“All aspects of the justice continuum are important, but the time has come in this country to take a step back and look at not only how we’re managing offenders, but how we are treating victims,” she said at a recent news conference in Ottawa.

Most Canadians would be surprised to learn that victims don’t have an automatic right to attend parole hearings and have to apply like other members of the public. They can only read pre-approved statements. No transcripts or audio recordings are made available for victims who can’t attend, and videoconferences are rare.

Her report makes a number of recommendations to help victims get a fair shake from the justice system. She believes that victims need more financial support. Compensation and restitution are two mechanisms to help victims and hold criminals accountable. But, while financial issues are normally worked out at the provincial level, a federal «victim surcharge» may also apply.

However, O’Sullivan said that the surcharge is often waived with no explanation and that restitution ordered at the discretion of the courts is underused and poorly enforced. She would like to see the victim surcharge doubled from the maximum $100 and made mandatory.

Cotler said that victims will be able to obtain more information about their offenders under the new law, a move that O’Sullivan supports. “We’ve made what we think are very practical and reasonable recommendations for the government to implement,” she said.

“Offenders should be held accountable, period,” said O’Sullivan.

[ Deborah Rankin ]

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