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Liberals propose federal criminal reforms aimed at systemic racism in justice system

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is moving to repeal mandatory minimum penalties for drug offences and some gun-related crimes, saying they do not make Canadians safer and unfairly affect Indigenous and Black offenders.

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is moving to repeal mandatory minimum penalties for drug offences and some gun-related crimes, saying they do not make Canadians safer and unfairly affect Indigenous and Black offenders.

Legislation introduced Thursday would also allow for greater use of conditional sentences, such as house arrest, counselling or treatment, for people who do not pose a threat to public safety.

In addition, it would require police and prosecutors to consider alternative measures for cases of simple possession of drugs, such as diversion to addiction-treatment programs.

The office of Justice Minister David Lametti says serious criminals deserve to be punished and kept away from communities.

But it says too many lower-risk and first-time offenders, including a disproportionate number of Indigenous and Black people, are being locked away due to policies that are proven not to deter crime.

The legislation is one of several measures the federal Liberals have promised to address systemic racism in the justice system.

The bill would give judges more discretion in sentencing, rather than the mandatory minimum sentences ushered in by Stephen Harper's previous Conservative government as part of its tough-on-crime agenda.

Under the Criminal Code, an offence punishable by a mandatory minimum penalty requires that the judge impose a sentence equal to or greater than the minimum term for that offence, even in cases where imprisonment is not appropriate.

Mandatory minimums have been widely criticized for exacerbating the disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous people who wind up jail.

Lametti told a news conference Thursday the planned measures would turn the page on an approach that has not worked.

"It was an approach that did not make our communities safer. It did not deter criminals. It did not make the justice system more effective or more fair," he said. "Its singular accomplishment has been to incarcerate too many Indigenous people, too many Black people and too many marginalized Canadians."

Indigenous adults are five per cent of the Canadian population but 30 per cent of admissions to federal custody. Black adults comprise three per cent of the population but 7.2 per cent of federal offenders.

The proposed changes would repeal mandatory minimums for 14 of the 67 offences for which minimums apply under the Criminal Code. Mandatory minimums for all six of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act offences punishable by minimum sentences would be scrapped.

Lametti's predecessor in the justice portfolio, Jody Wilson-Raybould, was tasked with reviewing mandatory minimum sentences but nothing ever came of it and the government has been facing mounting pressure to act. 

Last June, the multi-party parliamentary Black caucus issued a call to action that, among other things, demanded the elimination of mandatory minimums. Lametti was among the signatories. 

The HIV Legal Network welcomed the legislation but said it falls short by failing to simply repeal the criminal prohibition on personal drug possession, even while it acknowledges that drug use is a health issue and that criminalization causes harm and contributes to stigma.

The threat of a possible charge for simple possession is "still at play during any interaction between police and people who use drugs," the group said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ruled out decriminalizing simple possession of illicit drugs but his government has been moving gradually in the direction of treating drug addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue.

Consistent with the Liberals' approach, the director of public prosecutions issued new guidelines last summer instructing federal prosecutors to criminally prosecute only the most serious drug-possession offences and to find alternatives outside the criminal justice system for the rest.

Lametti indicated it was not his place to go further, saying only that he would like to see a health-care response to problematic addiction.

"We're going to try to move forward in the most efficient, productive and compassionate way possible."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2021.

Jim Bronskill and Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press