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"Jobs not jails": Manitoba protesters rally against Ottawa's omnibus crime bill

WINNIPEG – Protesters outside the Manitoba legislature have warned that the federal omnibus crime bill being fast-tracked into law will cost taxpayers more, won't reduce crime and will create more hardened criminals.

About 250 people, some waving signs calling for "jobs not jails,'' also suggested the province's NDP government shouldn't support Ottawa's proposed crackdown on crime.

John Hutton, head of Manitoba's John Howard Society, said the proposed legislation makes many of the mistakes made by the United States years ago.

"You can't legislate an end to crime. Putting someone in jail longer, creating more minimum sentences hasn't worked. We've got 30 years of history of that in the United States,'' he said Tuesday.

"Our fear is that, like in the United States, money will be wasted building new jail cells and there will be no money left for programs that do work – employment programs, treatment programs and programs that support families.''

The federal Tories have combined nine separate bills into one – Bill C-10 – that would see mandatory sentences for some drug crimes, a new act to deal with violent young offenders and restrictions on house arrest.

Ontario, Quebec and some other provinces have voiced concerns about footing the court and jail costs of the Conservative plan, but Manitoba has been steadfastly supportive.

"The Conservative government of Newfoundland and Labrador has said they don't support the bill at all because it doesn't work,'' Hutton said. "I'd like there to be more dialogue and discussion between the provinces and the feds on this bill and I'm hoping Manitoba can be part of that discussion.''

Others at the rally said longer jail sentences won't affect the root causes of crime.

Cora Morgan, executive director of the aboriginal justice program Onashowewin Inc., said there are 10,000 children in the care of Manitoba Child and Family Services. The province is also the child poverty capital of Canada, she added.

"We are setting children up for failure at a young age,'' she said.

Tracy Booth, executive director of Manitoba's Elizabeth Fry Society, said women are the fastest growing group in the penal system. Some 80 per cent of them in Manitoba are aboriginal and many are single mothers, she said.

"There will be a secondary cost to this bill and its children,'' Booth told the crowd.

Jacquie Nicholson with the John Howard Society said politicians should be listening to inmates. Reading from statements she gathered from prisoners at the Winnipeg Remand Centre, Nicholson said they know the federal bill only make things worse.

It would create more criminals by housing them in overcrowded jails that are basically "a type of gang headquarters,'' she said. One inmate talked about the "inhumane'' conditions of sharing a cell with two other men.

"How many people per cell in two years?'' she read from the man's statement. "What kind of people will we be when we get out after our mandatory sentences are done?''

Manitoba Attorney General Andrew Swan was not available to comment.

Rachel Morgan, Swan's spokeswoman, said the province acknowledges the legislation would mean more cash for corrections. The province expects the extra costs to be shared by both the federal and provincial governments.

But even some additional strain on the provincial budget isn't enough to outweigh the provisions Manitoba welcomes in the crime bill, she added.

"It acts on many measures to toughen federal laws that the Manitoba government has been pushing for, including stiffer penalties to keep youth who are violent and repeat offenders behind bars and off the streets,'' she said in an emailed statement. "The bill includes tougher drug penalties aimed at gangs and organized crime.''

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