Wednesday September 03, 2014

Not a Conservative crime bill


If Liberal Party of Canada recruiters are not currently looking at Yukon Conservative MP Ryan Leef as a potential Liberal candidate for 2015, they ought to be.

Last week, Leef was peddling his new private member’s bill that calls for amendments to the Criminal Code that would give judges greater discretion in sentencing offenders suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

FASD is a neurological developmental disorder acquired in the womb and thus beyond the control of the individual who suffers from it. Its symptoms, which vary widely in degree among victims, include a lack of impulse control that frequently leads to primary troubles with the law and cognitive disabilities that often lands them back in court for breaching conditions. It’s a vicious cycle and there is little help once they are entrenched in the correctional system.

Leef knows of what he speaks as a former police officer and corrections officer, particularly in the north where FASD is nearly epidemic. His bill is a sensible, coherent and compassionate piece of legislation that does not excuse misconduct, but provides means by which victims could receive assessment, resources and services to manage the disorder and break the cycle.

In other words, it runs completely contrary to nearly everything so far in the Conservative tough on crime agenda. Perhaps the best proof of its contrariness is the fact that it is not a government bill, but a backbencher’s pet project.

I actually kind of felt sorry for the guy when he appeared on CBC’s Power and Politics last week. Host Evan Soloman, of course, had to call him out on the fact that it simply did not fit with his government’s modus operandi. The logical contortions he had to perform to try to rationalize the classically liberal-thinking behind the proposal was painful to watch.

The fact the bill was not quashed by the PMO also raises other inevitable questions, such as whether Stephen Harper is losing control of his backbench. Or maybe it is a signal of appeasement to the grumblings from the wilderness of his vast caucus that their voices are being stifled.  A cynic might even think the prime minister, in his lust for power, has simply recognized his party cannot continue to govern Canada forever from the far right and is willing to move his party toward the centre.

That is all wild speculation, of course. What is not so fanciful is that I can’t see how this piece of legislation can ever make it through the House of Commons. Certainly, Leef should be able to expect a good deal of support from the New Democrats and Liberals, this is right up their alley. And I don’t think Harper is above throwing the opposition a bone, but the problem for the government on this file is not entirely political, it is fiscal.

If implemented, this law is going to be very costly. I haven’t seen any estimates yet, but I can only imagine the price tag will be huge. It will require specialized resources and much time. I cannot see how Harper will be able to rationalize it on that basis.  

That is not to say it would not also be politically problematic to Harper. His is the party that built a good part of their brand attacking the independence of the courts, curtailing judge’s discretion, legislating harsher penalties and elevating victims rights above those of offenders.

I hope I am wrong because the FASD bill is the right (and by that I mean correct) thing to do.

In some jurisdictions, FASD is already used as a mitigating factor in court cases. When I was a reporter in northern B.C., it came up all the time. Since Leef introduced his bill in the House of Commons last Tuesday, I have become aware that Yukon has also made great strides in recognizing the devastating effects of the disorder.

Entrenching its definition and means of dealing with it in the Criminal Code could go a long way to helping FASD victims, raising awareness and aiding prevention.



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