Federal crime bills in a violent province

Sen. Donald Plett and Manitoba legal experts consider the provincial affects of new federal crime legislation

Josh Weinstein, president of the Manitoba Bar Association, believes the effects of mandatory minimum sentencing will be felt heavily in northern Manitoba communities. Dylan Hewlett

Though it is difficult to predict the full effects of new legislation, the federal government’s new omnibus crime bill may pose problems for Manitoba’s First Nation communities and courtroom resources, legal experts say.

Josh Weinstein, president of the Manitoba Bar Association, believes the effects of mandatory minimum sentencing will be felt heavily in northern Manitoba communities.

“In northern communities, where there is a more traditional style sentencing based on aboriginal traditions, you will see a large impact,” he said.

In northern Manitoba, many communities alternatively use sentencing circles as a means of carrying out prosecutions.

This traditional aboriginal method focuses on the needs of the offenders and victims as opposed to the needs of the law. With new mandatory sentencing, verdicts reached in sentencing circles will largely be overridden.

This is problematic because sentencing circles often look to alternate penalties to jail, Weinstein said.

“If the community using a traditional method reach an alternate agreement, the result will still be a jail sentence,” he said. “We now paint everyone with the same brush – they are all going to jail.”

Allison Fenske, a lawyer and an instructor of a Canadian Legal Systems course at the University of Winnipeg, believes Manitoba’s First Nations will be greatly impacted by the new legislation.

“First Nations are over-represented in our prison populations,” she said. “Any crime bill that impacts the prison system will impact that population at higher rates.”

Sen. Donald Plett, founding president of the National Council of the Conservative Party of Canada, argues that socio-economic disadvantaged groups and communities are negatively impacted by crime regardless of whether new legislation is implemented.

“Not having the legislation also negatively affects the same groups,” he said. “When the disadvantaged are murdering people, for example, there is a good chance they are murdering another disadvantaged person. Having no legislation will not stop this.”

Fenske notes that the new legislation makes no move to prevent the root causes of crime.

“If you want to keep people safe, you prevent the crimes from happening in the first place,” she said.

Plett contends prison sentencing is an integral part of preventing crime.

“We don’t throw them in dungeons, we put them through programs so they can get cleaned up and straightened out,” he said.

Crime prevention programs like downtown development and community building are only part of the solution, Plett adds.

“U of W offers another alternate solution by cleaning up downtown through downtown development,” he said. “You can have all the community and development programs in the world but if you don’t clean up the areas around them, you can’t benefit from them.”

On the other hand, Weinstein holds that mandatory sentences do not make communities safer.

“Statistics show that mandatory jail does not make communities safer,” he said. “If it demonstrates otherwise, I will be eating my words.”

Weinstein is also concerned for the provincial legal resources the new bill will consume.

“It’s going to have a huge impact on correction facility and court resources in Manitoba,” he said.

“When people have more to lose by pleading guilty, when they are likely to go to jail, there will be more trials and more courtroom time, which will stretch out lawyers, judges and legal aid.”

Published in Volume 66, Number 6 of The Uniter (October 5, 2011)

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