Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay suggested Monday that offenders who can’t afford the government’s controversial mandatory victim fine surcharge should consider selling their belongings to pay off the debt.

The new surcharge came into effect in October and has been a flashpoint for rebellion by judges who have either refused to apply it or found creative methods to minimize it, such as handing out $1 fines that reduced the surcharge to pennies, or allowing offenders upwards of 50 years to pay it back.

In an interview with the Citizen, MacKay lashed out at critics who said the mandatory victim fine — usually $100 or $200 depending on the severity of the crime — was causing undue hardship for criminals.

“Two or three hundred dollars? Really? Disproportionate, out of step, cruel and unusual punishment? What about the victim that in some cases has to pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars as a result of being an innocent in the system who becomes a victim,” said MacKay. “We believe victims deserve more respect, more inclusion and a stronger voice in the justice system.”

MacKay said there are options for offenders who can’t afford the fine to pay back what they owe.

“You pay it back over time. But not a disproportionate and ludicrous period of time as some judges have meted out. There are even within some prisons the ability for prisoners to be paid. And sometimes they might even have to, God forbid, sell a bit of property to pay and make compensation to their victim,” he said. “I don’t really ascribe at all any legitimacy to saying that a fine of two to three hundred dollars that a person could pay back over several years is cruel and unusual punishment, when one considers the suffering of victims.”

One of the offenders in Ottawa who had their $100 fine waived was a crack-addicted refugee who fled civil war in Sierra Leone, while another, a homeless teenager who lives in a shelter, was given 60 years to pay.

One judge in Ottawa found the new law was unconstitutional because it constituted a tax.

All three cases are being appealed.

MacKay said he was “a little surprised” by the “pushback” from judges and politicians to the Conservative justice reforms, including the mandatory victim fine surcharge and mandatory minimum jail sentences.

“As minister of justice, I’ve got nothing but respect for our judiciary and I also understand implicitly the importance of not only judicial discretion but judicial independence. Having said that, I also have a high degree of respect for Parliament and the institution of those who are democratically elected to pass laws,” he said.

MacKay said judges need to “apply the law.”

“Respect the law. Respect the democratically elected Parliament of Canada,” said MacKay. “If an offender shows they are unable to pay, in the vast majority of provinces there is a fine option program where they can work off that debt, and if not, if they need an extended period of time or they need to sell a small amount of property in order to pay that debt to society, that debt specifically to the victim, they should be afforded the opportunity to do so,” said MacKay, a former prosecutor.

“Simply waiving it out of hand — I’m telling you, I used to see it routinely, the judge would say, ‘well the person is going off to jail so they have no means to pay and I’m going to waive the victim fine surcharge.’ Those days are over.”

MacKay insisted offenders should have the option to work off the fine. However, Ontario, British Columbia and Newfoundland don’t have fine option programs. MacKay said it is not something he can force the provinces to enact.

MacKay said he is now focused on tabling the Victims’ Bill of Rights, a piece of legislation he hopes will be the “cornerstone” of the Conservative government’s contribution to criminal justice in Canada.

“What we’re going to see is that victims will be placed at the very epicentre, at the heart of our criminal justice system, by virtue of this bill of rights,” said MacKay.

MacKay said his government is also set to propose legislation that will target sexual offences against children, as well as deal with drunk driving and drug-impaired driving.

It is “very likely” that the sex offender legislation will include mandatory minimum sentences, MacKay said

Source: Ottawa Citzen


Last updated on: 2013-12-29 | Link to this post