Crime victims’ watchdog bites Harper on way out door

OTTAWA — Canada’s first watchdog for crime victims, in a parting shot at the Harper government, says the Conservatives are shortchanging victims and that tough-on-crime initiatives are not what they need.

While victims don’t want to see perpetrators reoffend, the government doesn’t get it when it increasingly portrays stiffer sentences as a victims’ service, Steve Sullivan told the Commons public safety committee Tuesday.

“The tough-on-crime agenda will not meet the needs of victims of crime,” said Sullivan, the outgoing national ombudsman, whose three-year term ends this week.

In a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Monday, Sullivan painted a picture of a single-minded government bent on hiking spending for the prison system rather than focusing on the programs and services that victims need to heal.

“If the focus remains solely on sentencing, the concerns of most victims won’t be addressed,” wrote Sullivan. “A better balance must be struck.”

Sullivan, the first appointee to the post, questioned why the government has significantly increased the federal prison budget at a time of declining crime rates.

It is the first public criticism that Sullivan has levelled at the government during his term. He was informed more than one month ago, without explanation, that he would not be reappointed.

The Conservative government, which touts itself as the party that protects crime victims, frequently asserts that victims are clamouring for get-tough policies to put more people in prison and keep them there longer.

Sullivan, however, said victims are more concerned about having a say in the justice system.

“If they are engaged in the process, if they understand why decisions are made and are given a voice, they are more satisfied with the result, regardless of the sentence given,” he told Harper.

Creating a victims’ ombudsman was a key promise of the Harper Conservatives in the 2006 election that brought them to power.

Sullivan said Tuesday in an interview that spending increases to victim services are proportionally minuscule, compared to the spending hikes for the $1.5-billion-a-year prison service.

The Correctional Service of Canada budget is slated to increase 27 per cent over the next three years.

He told Harper that the government, among other things, rejected his request to spend “a mere $5 million” to help create new child advocacy centres in Canada, which would allow young crime victims to go to one venue to tell their stories to police and receive needed services, such as counselling.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told the House of Commons that the government remains dedicated to standing up for victims.

For instance, he said, he reintroduced a bill Tuesday that would eliminate the so-called faint-hope clause that gives murderers a chance at early release after serving 15 years.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said this week that he makes no apologies for increased prison spending — and he stressed that is what victims want.

“We understand there is a cost to keeping dangerous criminals behind bars — and we’re willing to pay it,” he told a gathering of police this week.

“As victims have repeatedly told us, releasing criminals onto our streets early has a much higher cost than keeping criminals behind bars.”

The government is expected to name a new victims’ ombudsman in the coming weeks.

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