Public Safety Minister Kris Austin speaks at a rural crime meeting in Plaster Rock last October. The Tory minister plans on introducing a law that will give police officers more powers to arrest people who trespass on private property.Brunswick News Archive

Fed up with vagrants and thieves disrupting businesses, New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative government will soon introduce a stronger law to discourage people from trespassing on private property.

Public Safety Minister Kris Austin told Brunswick News on Wednesday he hopes to introduce law amendments in the legislature this fall to address the problem.

“The law as it stands right now doesn’t give a whole lot of teeth for police to be able to either cite or give a no trespass order to people who are violating private property,” the minister said. “So we’re looking at beefing up that legislation to give those officers more authority to do what they have to do to mitigate some of the trespassing we’re seeing, especially in the cities.”

The decision to strengthen the law was based on feedback from municipal officials who are concerned about people hanging around private businesses, looking to pinch valuables and sell them anyway they can, he said.

“It certainly leads back to the homelessness and addictions issues that we’re facing,” Austin said. “A lot of the businesses are very frustrated. They feel like they’re helpless to even get these folks off their properties. I’ve seen pictures of businesses, where patrons come in, and there are people sleeping on the steps, and police are kind of helpless to do anything. We want to beef the law up and strengthen that up, so police can do what they have to do to move those folks along.”

But a criminologist at St. Thomas University said the reform would probably do very little to satisfy businesses.

“All this proposed law will do is criminalize homelessness,” Michael Boudreau wrote in an email to Brunswick News. “They may be moved away from a business one day, but if they have nowhere else to go, then they will no doubt return the next day.”

The professor said if the provincial government was really serious about addressing the problem, “then it should build more affordable housing, not a new correctional facility.”

Part of the Tories’ get tough-on-crime agenda is building a new jail in Minto that can house inmates from the central part of the province, instead of shipping them farther away to Saint John.

The Tory government has been blasted by the opposition Liberals and Greens for going ahead with plans to build the $42-million jail in Minto, where Austin lives and represents as an MLA. They, along with experts in addictions, say the money would be better spent on drug treatment and rehabilitation.

However, Austin remains convinced a new jail is necessary based on rising crime rates in the province and the lack of space at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre.

He downplayed differences with his own deputy minister, Mike Comeau, who recommended the jail be built in Fredericton, to lessen the cost and carbon footprint of transporting inmates back and forth from Minto to the capital city’s courthouse, and put as many inmates as possible closer to their home communities, where they’d have more support.

The Tory government scuttled plans to build it in a Fredericton industrial park after people living nearby complained.

“I know some people are trying to over-complicate this or say there are some kind of nefarious dealings, but there are not,” Austin said. “It’s very simple. The original location it was slated to be at in Lincoln Heights… there was strong local opposition. And, as a government, we just felt what’s the point of shoving this down people’s throats if they don’t want it versus other areas that are more than happy to have it?”

The province received nine expressions of interest and five serious proposals outside Fredericton to house the new jail, which will bring more than 100 jobs and generate economic activity.

“Grand Lake, including Minto, has been overwhelmingly supportive, and it’s just a better fit,” he said. “I’ve heard people say Minto is an hour’s drive. Minto isn’t an hour away. I can get from the legislature to my home in 30 or 40 minutes on a clear day. You would travel that time from one end of Fredericton to the other if it was busy in traffic.”

Austin is in the middle of a tour around the province to explain to the 12 regional service commissions the steps the Tory government has taken to fight crime, and how they can contribute to the cause.

It has already passed a law making it harder for thieves to cash in on copper wire stripped from businesses and homes, and catalytic converter thefts from vehicles.

The minister held private meetings with the commissions, which have municipal representatives, over the last two weeks in Richibucto, Miramichi and Fredericton, and plans on being in St. Andrews Thursday.

He’ll visit the other eight by the first part of October, before the legislature resumes sitting.

By John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter