New law will ensure some life sentences are for life: PM

The federal government will introduce new legislation to ensure that a life sentence means exactly that — a sentence for life without parole — Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday.

TORONTO — The federal government will introduce new legislation to ensure that a life sentence means exactly that — a sentence for life without parole — Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday.

The new bill will apply to those convicted of first-degree murder involving: the killing of police officers or correctional officers; terrorism; kidnapping or sexual assault; and crimes “of a particularly brutal nature.”

It would also apply to those who commit high treason.

“Next week, our government will introduce legislation to ensure that for the most heinous offenders and the most horrific crimes a life sentence in Canada will henceforth mean exactly that — a sentence for life,” Harper announced in front of a crowd that included families of murder victims.

Currently, those who are convicted of first-degree murder face an automatic sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.

Harper said that in order to address constitutional concerns, under the new law, some killers serving life without parole will be permitted to petition the minister for public safety for release after serving no less than 35 years.

“This is not parole,” Harper said. “Unlike parole, decisions will not rest with an appointed board but with the federal cabinet, men and women fully accountable to their fellow citizens and to the families of the victims of these crimes.”

Several families whose loved ones were murdered said the legislation would spare others like them the trauma of repeatedly facing their relatives’ killers in parole hearings.

If enacted, the changes would save families “a lifetime of misery, a lifetime of waiting for phone calls to come, emails to come, and preparing yourself mentally and physically for parole hearings,” said Susan Ashley, whose sister, Linda Bright, was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered by Donald Armstrong in Kingston, Ont., in 1978.

“You have no idea how much of a toll it takes on a human being.”

The proposed legislation fits into the Harper government’s tough-on-crime agenda as it gears up for an election later this year and follows through on a promise made in the 2013 Speech from the Throne.

The Conservatives have added dozens of mandatory minimum sentences, from drug and gun crimes to sex offences — a move that has come under criticism from the opposition parties and some human rights groups.