BY KEITH LACEY
The sister of a slain Sudbury police officer applauds a new piece of legislation that provides victims of crime with a louder voice in the criminal justice system.
Patti Mathes, sister of Const. Joe MacDonald, who was killed nine years ago, was very excited to hear the provincial government has passed Bill 60, the Victim Empowerment Act.
The act will, among many things, allow victims of crime and members of their families to speak out before parole board hearings and meet offenders face-to-face to express their grief and pain.
?I think this is excellent news,? said Mathis. ?These criminals have affected our lives in very tramautic and permanent ways.
?Our loved ones have been made silent, so this is an opportunity for victims of crime to express our views and have some input into sentencing and release of these criminals. I think this is a huge step forward.?
MacDonald?s killers, Clinton Suzack and Peter Pennett, are currently serving life sentences for first-degree murder. They won?t be eligible for parole until 25 years of a life sentence has been served.
Any piece of legislation that benefits victims of crime should be applauded, says Sudbury MPP Rick Bartolucci, commenting on Bill 60, passed last week by Bob Runciman, Minister of Public Safety and Security and the provincial Tory government.
?At the heart of this legislation is how victims of crime will have a stronger voice, and for that reason alone, I think it?s a giant step forward,? said Bartolucci.
The bill itself ?doesn?t go far enough,? but it?s a big improvement on the current system and can now be worked on and improved, said Bartolucci.
?I support the legislation and have spoken out in favour of such proposed legislation for a long time,? said the veteran MPP.
The most important part of the bill allows victims of crime and family members an opportunity to speak to the parole board and in front of offenders before any decision on release is made, said Bartolucci.
He would prefer that all such hearings are held in public, but the legislation still keeps things behind closed doors.
?These hearings should be held in public so everyone is aware of what?s going on,? he said. ?That being said, allowing victims of crime to face their offender during the parole phase is something which is long overdue.?
The Liberal government would strengthen this legislation and make such hearings open if they form the next government, said Bartolucci.
The Victim Empowerment Act demonstrates the government?s commitment to supporting victims of crime and being tough on criminals in several ways, said Runicman.
?For far too long, the needs of victims of crime have been overlooked in the criminal justice process,? said Runciman. ?Our government has been steadily making changes to give victims the voice they deserve.?
The new act gives crime victims a voice, allows for correctional officers to monitor offenders? telephone calls, enacts a zero tolerance policy for offenders, prescribes basic grooming standards for inmates, and establishes standards of professional ethics for correctional workers.
Specifically, the legislation gives victims of crime greater participation in the justice system by allowing them to attend parole hearings and address the parole board panel.
Like Bartolucci, the provincial Office of Victims of Crime is very pleased victims can now face offenders during parole board hearings.
?This is a significant step forward for victims of crime in Ontario,? said Sharon Rosenfeldt, chair of the provincial Office of Victims of Crime. ?Many victims of crime want to be part of the process at all stages of the criminal justice system and this act will enable them to do that.?
?I strongly endorse this initiative to make victims? rights an important factor in the decision-making process,? said Louis Theoret, chair of the Ontario Parole and Earned Release Board.
Victim participation at parole hearings will ensure the parole board?s decision-making process and release of offenders are more open and accountable to the public, said Runicman.
The presence of victims at hearings will also ensure that board members and offenders have a clear understanding of the effects of crime on victims and their families, he said.
Until this bill was passed, victims were only allowed to submit written victim impact statements to the parole board or meet with board members before the actual hearing. Victims were not allowed to watch the proceedings or comment directly while in the presence of the offender.
The act establishes the authority to monitor?or block?phone calls between inmates and people outside institutions.
Call blocking would eliminate victims? potential exposure to further threats and abuse while the offender is in custody and prevent inmates from engaging in further criminal activity while in custody, said Bartolucci.
It will also improve safety within institutions for employees and other inmates and reduce the incidents of contraband, he said.
The bill includes a zero tolerance policy for acts of aggression or violence against all correctional staff. Currently, inmates who assault correctional staff are subject to either a criminal charge or internal misconduct charge, but not both.
The zero tolerance policy will apply to all offenders in provincial correctional institutions as well as offenders serving sentences in the community, including those on parole or probation.