Justice Minister Rob Nicholson cast aside criticism Tuesday that the government's new justice bill doesn't have a clear price tag and ignores trends that show crime rates are actually decreasing.

The government's so-called "omnibus" bill wraps up nine individual pieces of legislation into one, and aims to toughen sentences for drug traffickers, child sexual predators and repeat violent young offenders.

"People who shouldn't be on the street will be off the street, and this bill puts the rights of victims at the forefront," Nicholson said on CTV's Power Play.

"This is something that Canadians support, and we made it very clear in the last election that this was the direction we were going."

The Safe Streets and Communities Act has been cast as the Conservative government's key fall piece of legislation, and Nicholson hopes it will be passed quickly through the House of Commons.

However, critics of the tough-on-crime approach pointed to statistics that show crime has actually decreased in Canada, along with other Western nations, in recent years.

Several key groups, including the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Pediatric Society, which represents doctors, said that the bill is the wrong way to proceed.

"The impact on northern residents, aboriginal people and people with mental illness will be especially profound," said the CBA's Dan MacRury in a press release.

"The CBA believes that the bill will make already serious criminal justice system problems much worse, with huge resource implications."

In the United States, for example, some officials are aiming to get rid of mandatory minimum sentences that have led to overcrowded jails and crippling incarceration costs.

While Nicholson acknowledged that some crime rates have dropped, he noted that instances of drug crime and child pornography have increased in recent years.

Nicholson added that the government doesn't "put price tags in legislation" and that much of the price of crime is borne by victims.

"We're not governing on the basis of the latest statistics," Nicholson said at a news conference, held earlier in the day near Toronto.

"We're governing on the basis of what's right to better protect victims and law-abiding Canadians."

Some of the bill's key points include:

  • The elimination of house arrest for those convicted of serious, violent and property crimes such as sexual assault, human trafficking, arson, break-and-enter, luring a child or kidnapping.
  • Victims of terrorism will be allowed to sue perpetrators and supporters of terror, including listed foreign states.
  • The amount of time required before a convict can apply for a pardon will be extended, and pardons will be renamed "record suspension."
  • Adults convicted of sexual crimes against children will face increased sentences.
  • Two new offences will be created to take aim at conduct that "could facilitate the sexual abuse of a child."
  • Those convicted of producing or trafficking illegal drugs will face tougher sentences as an attempt to crack down on organized crime.

Nicholson said that more justice bills are on the way, including refined legislation on citizen's arrest and self-defence.

The government will also amend the International Transfer of Offenders Act to ensure Canada has the final say before Canadians convicted of crimes abroad are sent home. And parole boards will also be given greater authority to extend detention for individuals who pose a risk to society.

Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae quickly lashed out at the omnibus bill, saying crime statistics have been going down in Canada and there is no need to bring in new and tougher laws that will only result in more people being sent to prison.

Rae vowed to fight the Conservatives over the issue.

"We intend to do direct battle with the Conservatives on this issue because we don't believe it is a crime prevention agenda, we do not believe it is an increased public safety agenda and we don't think it will withstand public scrutiny."

Rae pointed out that the Conservatives have not issued an estimate for the cost of enacting the new bill.

The Canadian Paediatric Society also expressed their disapproval for the bill. They say that changing the youth crime law to allow stiffer sentences for children as young as 14 will have significant negative consequences.

The group, which represents Canadian paediatricians, says the current Youth Crime Justice Act supports rehabilitation and reintegration, instead of putting the emphasis on incarceration.

They say the federal government should work with provincial and territorial governments on youth crime prevention strategies that would include early detection and treatment of mental and behavioural health issues that might lead to criminal activity.