Organized syndicates believed to be behind methamphetamine-fuelled crime sprees are the focus of a pan-Canadian working group struck to develop a national strategy to combat rural crime, Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer says.
Canada’s deputy ministers of justice and public safety, who had their first call on Feb. 27, are also looking at stiffer sentences for offenders, Schweitzer told CBC in an interview Monday.
The group, co-chaired by Schweitzer and federal public safety minister Bill Blair, was formed after Alberta Justice forced the issue of rural crime onto the agenda at a ministers’ meeting in January and proposed a national strategy.
Criminals on a “meth-bender” go from community to community stealing more and more property to “fuel their next hit,” Schweitzer said.
“And we’re seeing that type of carnage continue to grow,” he said. “It’s really making sure that we have the ability to go after organized crime, which is preying on people that have addictions to meth and other drugs and make sure we get it off the streets.
“Some of that is beyond the scope of what we can control at the provincial level so we really need to partner with the federal government to control the importation of the underlying precursors that allow people to make meth.”
The group aims to finalize a strategy to be tabled by Schweitzer and Blair at the next ministers’ meeting this fall.
The plan for a national strategy came after Schweitzer appeared at dozens of town halls last year that resulted in a slew of new provincial measures to tackle rural crime.
Changes have included laying out plans to hire hundreds of new RCMP officers, amendments to legislation preventing offenders from suing landowners, adding 4,000 new drug treatment beds and expanding the drug treatment court program.
RCMP have already hired 20 of the additional 300 officers being added to Alberta’s ranksover the next five years, Schweitzer said.
In December, Schweitzer wrote a letter to federal justice minister David Lametti proposing amendments to the criminal code to introduce aggravating factors around sentencing for rural offenders due to the victim’s isolation, he said.
He warned that failure by Ottawa to respond to the issue increasingly impacting rural Canadians would exacerbate existing feelings of western alienation.
“Proof will be in the success over the long term here but to date we’ve had a willing partner working with us to deal with this issue,” Schweitzer said on Monday.
Jason Hines, who works in loss prevention and launched Facebook groups that include Red Deer Stolen Vehicles and Community Crime Watch, hopes to see more repercussions for repeat offenders.
“I see the same crooks repeatedly steal from our stores over and over,” Hines told CBC. “We give them (trespassing tickets). They don’t care. They come back. They steal a couple more things. They get caught, they get a ticket. They go to jail for a couple days, get three square meals and they just keep on repeating because they know they’ll be out.
“They can keep getting away with it and there’s no repercussions. There needs to be something where they’re taught something different, here is a repercussion for their actions. They need to lose something of their own in order for them to reflect on it.”
The working group will also look at social issues around rural crime such as suicide, drug use and economic factors as well as the response to the opioid crisis.
“While it is still early in the process, we are pleased to be a part of these discussions, and look forward to continuing to work with our partners to improve our collective responses to rural crime,” wrote Christine Tell, Saskatchewan Minister of Corrections and Policing.
A draft of the strategy is expected to be ready in May.