Justice Minister David Lametti urged senators to pass the Liberal government’s proposed legislation on mandatory minimum penalties Wednesday, saying the bill would target the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.
Twenty mandatory minimum penalties would be removed from the Criminal Code if the legislation passes, Lametti said during a hearing of the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee. They were chosen because of their exaggerated impact, he said.
“We’ve picked minimum mandatory penalties that do have an impact right now on Indigenous communities, on Black communities, on racialized communities,” he said.
Bill C-5, which passed third reading in the House of Commons in June, would amend the Criminal Code to remove mandatory minimum prison sentences for all drug convictions and for some firearms and tobacco-related offences.
If the Senate passes the bill and it becomes law, prosecutors would also be required to consider referring defendants to treatment programs or other support services instead of charging them for simple drug possession offences.
Lametti has argued that the changes, which reverse “tough on crime” measures passed under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, would lessen the caseloads on courts.
But some senators, including Saskatchewan Conservative Denise Batters, argued that Lametti doesn’t have public support to pass the bill. “Canadians are no longer onside with your soft crime approach that’s epitomized by this bill,” she said.
Lametti told senators during a committee hearing he is aware of the criticisms the law is “soft on crime,” but he said serious crimes would continue to have serious consequences.
“There seems to be this presumption out there that everybody gets the minimum mandatory,” he said in an interview after the committee hearing.
In fact, he said, judges often hand down sentences that are more severe than mandatory minimum penalties, and the Liberal government is moving to raise the maximum penalties for certain gun and gang offences under another piece of legislation focused on firearms, Bill C-21.
Other senators questioned why only some mandatory minimum sentences are being repealed.
“This is a very significant first step,” Lametti said. “It’s one that Canadians will be able to understand, and then we’ll be able to gather more data, move forward and see what the next steps should be.”
If the bill passes the Senate and becomes law, it will be Liberals’ first major reform on the file after promising to review mandatory minimums in 2015.
It would also result in major changes to how drug possession records are dealt with in Canada.
Thanks to an NDP amendment to the bill, existing criminal records associated with simple possession charges would disappear within two years, and records created by new convictions would be expunged two years after the end of the sentence.
A previous version of the same legislation, Bill C-22, was introduced in February 2021 but died on the order paper when last fall’s federal election was called.
The Senate committee is expected to wrap up its study of the bill some time this fall.