Alberta Justice Minister talks rural crime in Lacombe-Ponoka

Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer, left, stands next to Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr at the Lacombe-Ponoka constituency office in Lacombe following a discussion with local municipal and police representatives on rural crime. (Ashli Barrett/Lacombe Globe) jpg, LG

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Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer is looking to bolster his government’s plans to tackle rural crime and restore confidence in the justice system through a month-long tour of the province’s rural communities.

His latest stop was in Lacombe Tuesday, where he met with municipal, police and victim services representatives from Lacombe, Lacombe County, and Blackfalds to discuss challenges faced in the area.

“The one thing I’m hearing loud and clear is rural crime is a major issue in communities across Alberta. It was a big issue that was raised on the campaign trail and is an area that we’re going to be tackling and taking seriously in implementing our campaign platform commitments we’ve made,” he said. “The premier’s given me clear direction to get out there and talk to Albertans to make sure we’re not missing anything.”

Crime is 38 per cent higher in rural Alberta, compared to urban areas according to 2017 information from Statistics Canada. While the previous Alberta NDP government rolled out a crime reduction strategy in February 2018 that saw an 11 per cent drop in property crime in the first seven months, rural crime is still at historic levels.

So, too, is the frustration of victims of rural crime locally and across the province who refer to the issue as an epidemic.

“There’s been a breakdown in confidence in the justice system as a whole in the community,” Schweitzer said. “People don’t feel as though justice will be done, necessarily. They feel police will be able to catch a perpetrator, but they’re worried that an individual that’s a repeat offender will just be back out on the street.”

While some progress was made under the previous government, the UCP have been critical of action not being taken sooner, and measures taken being insufficient. As such, crime prevention and increasing public safety became key components of their platform.

Amongst commitments made, which Schweitzer says will be kept, is an extra $50 million for the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team (ALERT), which deals with child exploitation, domestic violence and other issues, as well as the hiring of 50 new prosecutors to ensure cases aren’t dropped due to time constraints. That process is currently underway.

He also said the government will put $20 million towards the creation and expansion of drug treatment courts to help offenders with drug or alcohol addictions get treatment and social supports in order to break the “cycle of crime.”

“I was on the board of the Calgary Drug Treatment Court for over five years and it’s a collaboration,” he said. “It’s had great success but the only reason it’s had success is you have housing, social services at the table to provide those wrap-around services….We need to make sure we can expand that reach to our mid-size centres and rural Alberta as well because the issues are just as real there as tehy are in the big city.”

They’re also trying to work with other levels of government, including writing a letter of support for Red Deer-Lacombe MP Blaine Calkins’ private members bill, C-458, that if passed, would amend the Criminal Code to make evidence that an offence directed at a person or property that was vulnerable because of their remoteness from emergency services an aggravating factor in sentencing.

While legislation and any proposed changes that come through the consultation will take some time to go into effect, Schweitzer encourages victims of rural crime – not to mention crim in general – to continue to report each incident.

“There’s been a general frustration where people have stopped reporting crimes – they’ve kind of given up,” he said. “Report suspicious behaviour, continue to report that information because it gives us, at a minimum, the stats we need to show people in Edmonton funding is needed to address the issue. There’s Crime Severity Indexes, things like that, that help guide policy, so even though, sometimes, you might feel justice is not always being done, we’re doing our best to implement our policy committments as fast as possible.

“This is not going to be done in one day – these are challenging issues across Alberta…We need to deal with this, provide the resources necessary to get it done.”

As for local representation on the issue, Schweitzer lauded Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr for being a “loud and well thought of advocate” as part of the Rural Crime Committee.

For his part, Orr encouraged people to stay vigilant, and be part of tackling the issue.

“I don’t think people should despair – there is some room for some hopefulness. We have seen some small improvement in the statistics, but that doesn’t necessarily trickle down immediately to the people who are still experiencing victimhood through criminal activity. We’re moving a little bit in the right direction and we’re going to continue to do that,” he said.

“Do what you can do – don’t just expect the police to do it all for you, work together as a community, support local crime groups. There’s so many people who don’t want to get involved and this is something that, as a society, we have to work together on.”

Schweitzer followed his visit in Lacombe with one in Athabasca. On Wednesday he visited Fairview and Slave Lake, and on Thursday he will make stops in Grande Prairie and Whitecourt. His tour will end Sept. 30 in Medicine Hat.

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