Harper crime agenda is not a crime victim agenda

Steve Sullivan’s recent piece on the Harper crime agenda for The Hill Times:

Harper crime agenda is not a crime victim agenda

The Prime Minister recently summed up his approach to crime victims during his address to a crowd of victims and advocates. He described how the criminal justice system has traditionally focused all of its attention on offenders and not enough on victims, which is true. So you can imagine the audience’s confusion when he spent 95 per cent of his speech talking about offenders.

It should not be surprising. He believes the get-tough-on-crime agenda is synonymous with the crime victim agenda. The common belief that all victims favour harsher penalties is simply not true. The real needs of victims—information, financial, support, etc.—are not addressed by how much we punish the offender.

To be fair, sentencing is an issue for many victims. They expect offenders to be held accountable for their actions. But the truth is a tougher sentence will not help the majority of crime victims.

Most victims of violent crime do not even report the crime to the police. Less than 10 per cent of sexual assault victims report the crime. Most child victims will never tell anyone what happened. Tougher sentencing, and all the resources that go with it, will not help these people.

For those victims who report and charges are actually laid and there is a prosecution, the process is often more important than the outcome. If they are engaged throughout the investigation, if they understand why the Crown makes decisions and are given a voice, victims may be less concerned with the sentence. In our current system, we largely ignore victims, make complex decisions without explanation and rarely ask for their input. It is no wonder they look to the sentence (the outcome) for satisfaction because the system (the process) failed them.

To its credit, the government has taken some positive steps. In 2007, they created the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, developed an emergency fund to help Canadians victimized abroad and put more resources into northern communities for victim services because the rates of victimization are so high.

The government initiated special temporary residence permits for victims of trafficking that provide legal immigration status to victims, allowing them access to healthcare benefits and trauma counselling and the ability to apply for a work permit.

Last summer, the government reversed its position and introduced legislation to require internet service providers to give basic subscriber information to law enforcement without a warrant. This long-awaited legislation will address a problem identified as a barrier to finding child victims by child exploitation cops (unfortunately, this bill died when the Prime Minister prorogued and it has not been reintroduced, despite the fact that cops have been begging for it for years to help them to catch child sexual predators and rescue victims)

Instead of building on these positive initiatives and doing more for victims, the government contends its crime agenda is for victims. They contend their initiatives will prevent more victims by keeping offenders off the street longer, but 95 per cent of offenders are coming out of prison one day. Will we really be safer if they stay in prison and extra year or two or three? If the answer is yes, then the government should release the evidence to support these measures. This evidence, or the lack of it, should be front and centre in a debate that is going to cost lots of money during a fiscal crisis.

Which begs the question, why is the government unwilling to be upfront the costs of the crime agenda? According to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, one piece of legislation is going to cost $2-billion over five years (others suggest it will be higher). As for the rest of the bills, he would simply rather not share that information. However popular these proposals may be, we need to know what they will cost to determine if it is the best way to spend scarce resources.

Whatever is spent on these measures can’t be spent on initiatives that actually might make a difference in the lives of victims. For example, the government can’t put the resources necessary to help fund Child Advocacy Centres in every major city in this country (which the U.S. government does). The government can’t fund innovative programs and shelters to help trafficked youth escape a life selling themselves for food and shelter and survival to different men every night. The government can’t provide much-needed support to male victims of crime, a truly under-served group of victims who are in desperate need of support. The government can’t fund crime prevention research to address the fact that two per cent of Canadians experience 60 per cent of all violent crimes. And the list goes on.

Victims and victim groups are often called upon to support these measures, but if they were given a choice between spending limited resources on offenders or on supporting and protecting vulnerable victims, their answer might not be the one the government wants to hear.

The Prime Minister should reflect back on his speech because his government is focusing all its attention on offenders and not enough on victims.

Steve Sullivan has been an advocate for victims of crime for almost two decades and has testified before numerous Parliamentary and Senate committees. Most recently, he was Canada’s first ever federal ombudsman for Victims of Crime.



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