Tuesday, December 19, 2000

James McCarten
The Canadian Press

Ontario rolls out tough new laws to monitor prisoners, protect child prostitutes

Early parole in Ontario now means work, treatment programs, random drug tests; child prostitutes can be held in custody

TORONTO (CP) — The Government of Ontario continued its barrage of victim-friendly-tough-on-crime legislation today by passing a new law that makes early parole tougher and introducing a new bill to protect child prostitutes.

"Get used to spending time behind bars"

Prisoners seeking time off for good behaviour will have to submit to work and treatment programs as well as random drug tests under a law passed today by the Ontario government.

The legislation, designed to force provincial prisoners serving sentences of less than two years to earn their freedom, passed third reading by a 48-33 vote.

The Progressive Conservatives, fond of their reputation as a government that's focused on criminal justice, used their majority to defeat Liberal and NDP opposition to the bill.

To become law, the bill now needs only Hilary Weston, the Lieutenant Governor, to provide royal assent — a mere formality.

What about rehabilitation?

The new prison law hasn't been without its critics.

Criminal lawyers have complained that tougher parole standards would create more prison unrest while helping future privatized jails in Ontario turn a bigger profit.

And prisoners' rights advocates say the Tories have forgotten what rehabilitation of criminals is all about.

The new law also allows the province to implement random alcohol and drug testing for offenders in institutions and for those on parole. The province has not said how much the new testing would cost.

In federal prison, inmates are eligible for supervised release after serving two thirds of their sentence, despite continued requests by Ontario to change the laws.

Rob Sampson, who was Ontario's minister of corrections when the law was tabled, said at the time that prisoners who attend the programs would have to make an honest effort.

"And if you don't, I have one thing to say to you: get used to spending more time behind bars."

Mr. Sampson resigned last month after a Tory backbencher inadvertently read out the names of young offenders in the legislature.

Publicly identifying young offenders is a violation of the Young Offenders Act.

"Knee-jerk approach"

Lawyers and advocates for prisoners' rights have suggested the province is simply preparing for private prison operators who won't be willing to invest in food, rehabilitation programs and psychiatric care.

"It really is pandering to this knee-jerk approach that people are bad, so put them in jail," said Barbara Hill of the John Howard Societies of Ontario. "What is good, effective corrections? Not keeping people in prison longer. That we know."

The average provincial sentence is just 45 days, meaning prisoners who don't meet the new parole standards will stay in prison 15 days longer, she added.

The province plans to open a privatized "superjail" in Penetanguishene, Ont., next year as a pilot project to assess the viability of prisons run by private operators.

The new law also transforms the Parole Board of Ontario into the Ontario Parole and Earned Release Board, with added responsibilities for all decisions on early release of provincial prisoners.

"Their stories are heart-wrenching"

The Ontario government also hopes to pass a bill that would enable police to rescue and protect victims of child prostitution.

If passed, the legislation would allow police to remove a child under 18 from the streets, raiding massage parlours, X-rated entertainment facilities and even the Internet to do it, said Jim Mr. Flaherty, Ontario's Attorney General.

"In small and large communities across Ontario, children 13 to 18 years of age are forced to become and stay prostitutes," Mr. Flaherty told the legislature as he tabled the bill. Their stories are heart-wrenching. Many are runaways, however running to the streets comes with many hazards: predators such as pimps and johns, regular beatings and drugs."

Children would be placed in a safe house for five days, or as long as 30 days with a judge's permission, where they would be eligible for a range of treatment, such as medical and mental health services, drug and alcohol counselling and legal help.

The legislation would also give the province the power to suspend the driver's licenses of "pimps and johns."

"This bill, if passed, will give child care workers the additional tools the need to protect Ontario's youth and help them turn their lives around," said John Baird, Social Services Minister.

Mike Harris, the Premier of Ontario, said a noble purpose will be served by the bill, which he expects will win support from members on both sides of the legislative chamber.

"A number of opposition members have taken a look and think it's a good idea too," Mr. Harris said. "It's good non-partisan politics working at its best on behalf of the people of Ontario.

The legislation is borrowed largely from Alberta, where a similar law allows authorities to hold a child as long as 42 days if approved by the courts.

"An important first step

Jeanette Lewis, executive director of the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies, characterized the legislation as an "important first step.

Police and children's aid workers would need only a "reasonable belief" that a child is being sexually exploited in order to remove them to a safe house.

Some examples include prostitution, "sexually explicit" activity in an adult entertainment facility or massage parlour, or when a child is found in a bawdy house, acting as an escort or being used in the making of pornography.

Telephone and Internet sex lines would also be targeted by the legislation.

Such a broad application of potential circumstances "acknowledges the reality that many child victims of sexual exploitation are kept 'underground' to avoid detection by the justice system," according to a background document released Tuesday.

Aside from Alberta, British Columbia is the only other province with a similar law.

String of new laws

Both new measures follow a string justice initiatives from Queen's Park.

Late yesterday, the legislature passed a law to protect victims of domestic violence by replacing restraining orders with tougher, more effective "intervention orders" to better protect battered and abused women from stalkers and other abusers.

Another bill introduced yesterday would allow victims of crime to attend and participate in provincial parole hearings in person while the offender is present.

It would also establish new grooming, appearance and hygiene standards for prisoners and allow corrections staff to monitor, intercept and block inmate communications when public safety and security are considered at risk.

The province has also recently introduced legislation to seize ill-gotten gains from organized crime, block convicted felons from recounting their crimes in books or interviews for profit and make its Office of Victims of Crime a permanent advisory agency.

And they're not done yet: several measures promised in the 1999 election campaign are still pending, including legislation that would force criminals to pay for their crimes.

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Created: December 21, 2000
Last modified: January 21, 2001
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