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Liberals aim to tackle systemic racism in the justice system with proposed law

Click to play video: 'Reality check on repealing mandatory minimum sentences' Reality check on repealing mandatory minimum sentences
WATCH: Reality check on repealing mandatory minimum sentences – Feb 20, 2021

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is moving to repeal mandatory minimum penalties for drug offences and some gun-related crimes, saying they do not make Canadians safer and unfairly affect Indigenous and Black offenders.

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Legislation introduced Thursday would also allow for greater use of conditional sentences, such as house arrest, counselling or treatment, for people who do not pose a threat to public safety.

In addition, it would require police and prosecutors to consider alternative measures for cases of simple possession of drugs, such as diversion to addiction-treatment programs.

The office of Justice Minister David Lametti says serious criminals deserve to be punished and kept away from communities.

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Click to play video: 'Justice minister outlines components of bill to reform Criminal Code, Controlled Substances Act' Justice minister outlines components of bill to reform Criminal Code, Controlled Substances Act
Justice minister outlines components of bill to reform Criminal Code, Controlled Substances Act – Feb 18, 2021

But it says too many lower-risk and first-time offenders, including a disproportionate number of Indigenous and Black people, are being locked away due to policies that are proven not to deter crime.

The legislation is one of several measures the federal Liberals have promised to address systemic racism in the justice system.

Read more: Little done to stop anti-Black racism in policing, criminal justice in last 25 years: Ontario report

The legislation would give judges more discretion in sentencing, rather than the mandatory minimum sentences ushered in by Stephen Harper’s previous Conservative government as part of its tough-on-crime agenda.

Under the Criminal Code, an offence punishable by a mandatory minimum penalty requires that the judge impose a sentence equal to or greater than the minimum term for that offence, even in cases where imprisonment is not appropriate.

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Mandatory minimums have been widely criticized for exacerbating the disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous people who wind up jail.

Lametti told a news conference Thursday the planned measures would turn the page on an approach that has not worked.

The proposed changes would repeal mandatory minimums for 14 of the 67 offences for which minimums apply under the Criminal Code. Mandatory minimums for all six of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act offences punishable by minimum sentences would be scrapped.

Click to play video: 'Chagger says Canada ‘not immune to the realities of racism’' Chagger says Canada ‘not immune to the realities of racism’
Chagger says Canada ‘not immune to the realities of racism’ – Feb 18, 2021

Lametti’s predecessor in the justice portfolio, Jody Wilson-Raybould, was tasked with reviewing mandatory minimum sentences but nothing ever came of it and the government has been facing mounting pressure to act.

Last June, the multi-party parliamentary Black caucus issued a call to action that, among other things, demanded the elimination of mandatory minimums. Lametti was among the signatories.

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On Wednesday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller reiterated the need to review mandatory minimum sentences, noting that incarceration rates for racialized and Indigenous people far exceed the national average.

“These are things that we need to attack in sort of we say as a holistic approach that includes, most importantly, a review of mandatory minimums which in some cases have been held by the courts to be unconstitutional,” he said.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ruled out decriminalizing simple possession of illicit drugs but his government has been moving gradually in the direction of treating drug addiction as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue.

Consistent with the Liberals’ approach, the director of public prosecutions last summer issued new guidelines instructing federal prosecutors to criminally prosecute only the most serious drug-possession offences and to find alternatives outside the criminal justice system for the rest.

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