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Ex-Quebec minister backs Tory crime bill amid U.S. warning on sentencing

An inmate paces a Toronto jail on Feb. 24, 2011.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The government's controversial omnibus crime bill won support from a well-known Quebec justice minister Wednesday, while at the same time parliamentarians were warned by a U.S. law enforcement group of the perils of mandatory minimum sentences.

In spite of widespread concerns mandatory minimums will lead to increased costs and overcrowding in jails with few avenues for successful rehabilitation of criminals, Marc Bellemare said he stands behind the bill.

The proposed Conservative crime legislation will allow criminals to be rehabilitated while they are incarcerated, the former Quebec justice minister told a Senate committee Wednesday.

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Bill C-10, known as the Safe Streets and Communities Act is currently being studied in the Senate. The legislation amends nine laws and would establish new mandatory minimum prison sentences for a series of crimes, including drug possession. It has already passed in the House of Commons and is likely to pass the Red Chamber, where the Conservatives also hold a majority.

"Rehabilitation in not prevented with this bill," Mr. Bellemare told the Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs on Wednesday. "Minimum sentences must be coupled with rehabilitation for this to work," he said.

Mr. Bellemare also suggested criminals should be forced to liquidate their assets and pay for their own incarceration, citing the high profile Shafia murder case in which the bodies of four women were discovered in the Rideau Canal near Kingston. Some reports say the incarceration of Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya and their son Hamed Shafia, could cost Canadian taxpayers as much as $10-million.

Although Mr. Bellamere acknowledged the crime rate in Canada has been steadily decreasing, he said tougher penalties are still needed to act as a further deterrent and restore the public's faith in the criminal justice system.

"I think that this bill must be adopted in order to increase the public's trust" in the justice system, Mr. Bellemare testified.

In comparison, officials in the United States are aiming to get rid of mandatory minimum sentences.

In a letter sent to the Canadian Senate by the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition Group, Eric Sterling, who served as counsel to the U.S. House judiciary committee during the 1980s, said mandatory minimum sentences for minor marijuana offences did not work.

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"I played a major role in writing the mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws which later turned out to not only be ineffective in reducing drug use, but which directly contributed to the disastrous over incarceration problem in this country," Mr. Sterling said in a statement Wednesday. "I urge policy makers in Canada to learn from our mistakes."

The letter, signed by 28 current and former judges, police officers, and narcotics investigators, went on to say that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's comments that marijuana law reform in Canada would "cause a 'great deal of trouble' at the U.S. border and inhibit Canada-U.S. trade, are inaccurate and alarmist."

"Through our years of service enforcing anti-marijuana laws, we have seen the devastating unintended consequences of these laws," the letter said. "Among the greatest concerns is the growth in organized crime and gang violence."

Liberal Senator Larry Campbell, a member of LEAP's advisory board and a former member of the RCMP's drug squad, also voiced his concerns, saying he was hopeful the Senate would take LEAP's advice.

"The U.S. and many of its citizens have suffered greatly due to the inflexible and dogmatic nature of mandatory minimum sentences, and Canada would be wise to learn from and avoid that costly and socially destructive mistake," he said in a statement.

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