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Protecting Canada’s Seniors Act ignores the best evidence
More politics than good policy A version of this commentary appeared in the Guelph Mercury and the Waterloo Region Record Crime issues are once again top of the f ederal government’s agenda. Too bad none of the laundry list of unrelated pieces of legislation will have an impact on actual crime rates — nor will any of the proposed legislation assist the victims of crime. It’s more politics than good policy in other words. And Canadians are losing out in the process. Since 2006, the f ederal government has raised the mandatory minimum sentence f or some gun crimes f rom f our years to f ive years; imposed mandatory minimum sentences of nine months f or those planning to sell six marijuana plants grown in a rented apartment; banned conditional sentences f or people f ound guilty of stealing high-end television sets; and ensured that rehabilitated of f enders have to wait f ive years longer bef ore applying f or a pardon. T here is no evidence that any of these laws, or the myriad of other similarly random legislation passed by parliament, has made Canadians saf er. T he “Protecting Canada’s Seniors Act” passed in December, is a particularly cynical piece of legislation. It purports to address elder abuse — a serious problem in Canada. Unf ortunately, this Act will do nothing to protect seniors. A glaring problem with the Act is that elder abuse cases are rarely reported to the police in the f irst place — it is largely a hidden crime — and of f enders who have been reported are seldom convicted. T he legislative summary of the Act prepared by the Library of Parliament points out the sad truth: most elder abuse is committed by f amily members, and victims do not want f amily members charged. Other victims may lack the mental capacity to pursue a complaint, and in some cases of f inancial f raud, the victims do not even know they have been victimized. But here’s the real reason this Act should be treated like little more than political grandstanding — the new law adds virtually nothing to existing legislation. In f act, it is dif f icult to imagine an amendment to the criminal code that does less than this one. T he Criminal Code already required judges to take six specif ied aggravating f actors into account in their sentencing. T he new legislation simply adds a seventh f actor: “evidence that the of f ence had a signif icant impact on the victim, considering their age and other personal circumstances, including their health and f inancial situation.” T he Bill does not ref er to “elder abuse” nor does it specif y any particular age at which the aggravating f actor should apply. T he legislative summary notes that many judges already take the age of the victim into account in sentencing.

If the government had wanted to protect seniors they could have f ollowed several models of best practice, such as the Waterloo Region’s Elder Abuse Response Team, a partnership between the Waterloo Region Police Service and the Community Care Access Centre. A detective constable and an elder abuse resource consultant work with a diverse group of partners including health and social services, justice, f aith, and ethno-cultural communities to support abused seniors. T he team conducts joint investigations, f acilitates linkages to community resources, and case manages situations until a community agency takes over or until the situation is resolved. T he team approach allows f or meaningf ul sharing of inf ormation to reduce the risk of harm f or older persons. T he barriers that prevent some victims f rom accessing police services are reduced by the sharing of inf ormation, collaboration within the community and the ability to call directly to team members. T he result: a dramatic 150 per cent increase in the number of ref errals in the f irst two years. Most of this increase involved cases of physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and self -neglect. Less than 10 percent of ref errals are dealt with by pressing criminal charges — which highlights why increased legal penalties will not have any impact on the incidence of elder abuse. So, why should Canadians be concerned that legislation like “Protecting Canada’s Seniors Act” is more symbolic than f unctional? Meaningless legislation diverts attention f rom the things that might actually help to reduce crime and to provide better services f or victims. T he government should be f ocusing on what works — investing time and money in improving policing, implementing comprehensive programs such as the exemplary Elder Abuse Response Team, and providing more f unding f or victims, including seniors. Rick Linden is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca and teaches criminology at the University of Manitoba. Arlene Groh is a consultant for Healing Approaches for Elder Abuse and Mistreatment. She was a founding member of Waterloo Region’s Elder Abuse Response Team.

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