Evidence of meeting #30 for Public Safety and National Security in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was actually.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

4:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Kevin Sorenson

Good afternoon, everyone.

This is meeting 30 of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security. Today we are commencing our consideration of Bill C-293, An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.

In our first hour today we welcome the member of Parliament sponsoring this bill, Roxanne James, MP from Scarborough Centre.

The members of our committee, Ms. James, certainly want to extend our congratulations for shepherding your private member's bill this far, to the committee stage. It's a significant accomplishment, I think, for any member of Parliament.

First of all, in the number of years that I've been here, I don't think I've ever had a private member's bill drawn. So if you're going to get one drawn to begin with, you're very fortunate. And then to be able to shepherd it this far.... We commend you.

We would invite you to make your introductory statement. After that, if you'd be willing to field some questions from our committee, we would be very appreciative.

Ms. James.

4:30 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Scarborough Centre, ON

Thank you very much to the committee members, through the chair.

First of all, as you've said, it's extraordinary to be a new member of Parliament and have my number drawn so quickly to be able to present a private member's bill. So I'm very excited to be here.

I'm going to start my comments with generalities, just some background information regarding Bill C-293, An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (vexatious complainants).

The purpose of this bill is very simple. It's going to correct a costly problem that currently exists in Canada's correctional system. It's a small loophole, but I think it's a point we need to address. We need to correct it so that the system will run more efficiently and effectively, as it was originally intended.

Some background information: Correctional Service of Canada receives approximately 29,000 grievances a year from various offenders across Canada. Out of a total of approximately 23,000 offenders in CSC custody, a small group of approximately 20 inmates file more than 100 grievances per year. In fact, this group accounts for a whopping 15% of all complaints filed. There are even a few cases where offenders have filed in excess of 500, almost 600, grievances per year.

If you work out some of these numbers, it is approximately 10 complaints per week, or three complaints every two days. These sorts of complaints being filed, in excess of 500, are the ones I'm trying to target in this bill.

The increased volume of frivolous complaints significantly delays the process for other inmates to have their legitimate concerns heard. High complaint volume also ties up resources and has become taxing on our hard-working front-line correctional officers.

Bill C-293 will allow the Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada to label an offender as a vexatious complainant when the offender submits multiple complaints or grievances of a vexatious or frivolous nature and are not made in good faith. I truly believe that this bill will enable the CSC to minimize the impact of those who file such grievances, and it will ensure the grievance process maintains the integrity to accomplish the goals that it was originally intended to.

I'd like next to talk very briefly about the process that currently exists within the complaint process. If you've been in the House, you've heard that there are four levels to the complaint process. Actually, complaints may be resolved at any stage. However, inmates are the ones who get to determine if they are satisfied with the outcome of the decisions made by anyone at any stage.

The first level in the grievance process is called the complaint level. In simple terms, a prisoner fills out paperwork at the individual institution, which is then reviewed by the department or section manager, and if unresolved, it makes its way to the warden of that particular institution. For high-priority cases, the file will be reviewed in 15 working days, or, for regular cases, in 25 working days.

Correctional Service of Canada distinguishes high-priority complaints and grievances as those that have a direct effect on life, liberty, or security of that individual person, or that relate to the griever's access to the complaint and grievance process.

Once a complaint is reviewed, a decision will be made by the warden, who will either approve, approve in part, or deny the inmate's claim in full. Should the prisoner be unhappy with that decision, the prisoner has the right to appeal. This is where we get into the process of going through the different levels of the complaint process.

Where possible, complaint processing will occur at the lowest level. However, this means that the individual process can cascade three times, from the individual involved, to the department or section manager, and then to the warden, if the prisoner continues to appeal the previous resolution to the complaint.

While every effort is made to resolve an offender's grievance, it is apparent that the complaint level of the grievance process requires a great deal of resources to properly administer.

The second level in the grievance process occurs at the regional level. At this level, a grievance from the complaint level will be sent to the appropriate regional office where it will be assessed by the regional deputy commissioner. And again, the offender can appeal the decision if he does not like the answer.

The third level in the grievance process occurs at the senior regional level. Upon continued appeal, the senior regional deputy commissioner will review the grievance. This third stage requires that the senior regional deputy commissioner assess the original grievance and both first and second level appeals as well as the responses provided at the first and second levels of complaint.

I'd like to point out—because I think this is very significant to note—that grievances have been processed three times, with repeated and often redundant review, because prisoners control this entire appeal process. At this stage, grievances can be in the system for up to 150 working days and, as you can imagine, cause a significant administrative burden on our hard-working correctional officers.

The final level in the grievance process is the fourth-level grievance. If a decision is once again appealed, a grievance reaching level four means that the prisoner's claim will be sent to the commissioner of CSC. At this stage, grievances will again be approved, approved in part, or wholly declined. This will be a much shorter review because the commissioner's office will receive summaries from all other levels to assist in making a final decision. Furthermore, this timeframe is shorter because the commissioner's office has more staff and expertise at its disposal.

At this point I'd like to actually outline some of the problems our current system has.

First and foremost, the current system does not require that grievances are filed in good faith. I'd like to actually point to section 90 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act that states:

There shall be a procedure for fairly and expeditiously resolving offenders' grievances on matters within the jurisdiction of the Commissioner.

I really think this is important to point out because a system that requires all complaints to be processed, regardless of merit, and allows the prisoner to control that system actually contradicts the original purpose of section 90, which is obviously to do a fair and quick resolution of legitimate complaints. If we want to make sure section 90 is effective, we need to make sure we can close this loophole.

Amending section 91, the labelling of vexatious complainants, as I've outlined, will improve offender access to section 90 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, fair and timely resolution, which is central to the purpose of this bill.

Second, I'd like to point out that the current system is really a financial burden on the taxpayer. An incredible amount of resources and tax dollars are wasted when inmates are able to control a system that moves through four reviews and up to 150 days of processing time. We're all sitting here as taxpayers. I think we would want a system that works effectively, as was intended originally.

Another point is that allowing prisoners to file numerous frivolous complaints actually detracts from their ability to focus on what they're there for, which is their rehabilitation. I really believe that inmates should be focused on their correctional plan, the end result of which will mean their more effective reintegration into our society. Making a hobby of filing meritless grievances, I believe, makes a mockery of our correctional system and the entire grievance process.

Last, I'd like to point out that the present system creates a negative impact on the morale of staff involved in managing the grievance process. If you can imagine, inmates are continually filing grievances to cause trouble. You can imagine how people feel who have to deal with this on a daily basis, when they know their purpose is to actually deal with legitimate complaints.

I actually had an opportunity to tour and visit, with this bill, and front-line prison staff actually described the challenges of spending their time processing meritless complaints. It's also important to note that they truly believe that the complaint process, as it was intended, is absolutely a necessity within the prison system. Again, this bill is aiming to target just the frivolous, vexatious complaints, not the legitimate complaints that need to be heard.

When we talk about how we're going to fix the current system, I'd like to be very clear that this bill is, again, to target a very small number of inmates. It's not for the entire population, obviously.

Basically, in a nutshell, Bill C-293 allows the commissioner of Correctional Services Canada, or his assigned representative, to designate an offender as a vexatious complainant. Once this has occurred, the offender would be held to a higher standard of proof for future claims.

Again, this is going to target a small group of inmates.

Once an inmate is designated as a vexatious complainant, future complaints could be stopped at the first stage of the four-level process if the institution decided that the claim was vexatious and not made in good faith. In this regard, I believe that Bill C-293 will considerably improve how grievances are processed in our correctional system and it will allow legitimate complaints to be heard in a timely manner.

I also believe that Bill C-293 would help to make offenders more accountable, ensure greater respect for taxpayers, and take the unnecessary burden off the hard-working front-line correctional officers.

In closing, basically this bill is going to close a loophole, a costly loophole, in our Corrections and Conditional Release Act that has existed for a period of time. I think that once we close this loophole, the system is going to work much more efficiently and effectively, and as it was originally intended.

At this time, through you, Mr. Chair, I'd like to thank those members present who supported this bill and moved it to committee. As I said at the beginning, I'm quite excited about it, and I would now welcome any questions from the floor.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Kevin Sorenson

Thank you very much, Ms. James.

We'll move into our first round of questioning. On the government side, we look to Ms. Young, please.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Wai Young Vancouver South, BC

Thank you so much, Ms. James, for that excellent presentation outlining the various aspects of your new bill.

Congratulations, again, for being able to present such a new bill so early in your tenure as a member of Parliament.

I wanted to say that it's quite disturbing to me, and I think to most Canadians, to realize that 29,000 grievances are filed each year. You went through some of these statistics quite quickly, so let me just recap to see if I heard correctly. Twenty inmates are responsible for 120 complaints each year.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Scarborough Centre, ON

Actually, that small group of inmates, roughly 20, can file in excess of between 500 and 600 complaints per year. The majority of them are filing over 100 complaints. I just want to really stress that there are a few who are actually filing more than 500 complaints per year. That's important to note.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Wai Young Vancouver South, BC

We have small numbers of people, inmates, about 20, who are filing up to 500 or 600 complaints each year. By doing so, they're obviously clogging up the whole appeals and complaints system, as you so rightly outlined. This is a fairly extensive four-level complaints system.

I'd like to ask you how long this system, this complaints process, has been in place. Has it been in place for 20 years or 30 years, or whatever it happens to be?

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Scarborough Centre, ON

It's been in long enough for people to realize that there's a loophole that exists, and we need to close that loophole.

I went on with my speech for 10 minutes, but there are really a few key areas we need to look at. First and foremost, this bills deals with offender accountability. It's important to note that people who are paying a debt to society need to be accountable for their actions. They need to focus on their rehabilitation plans, and they really need to not be making a game of the system. Whatever the reason may be, they're making a mockery of the system. This bill is intended to close the loophole that currently exists. And I think it's important that through this committee, we get that process so that we can get this legislation to help our front-line, hard-working correctional staff.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Wai Young Vancouver South, BC

I wanted to ask questions about two different areas. One is the process. As we know, we are modernizing many different appeals processes and different things that have been in place within government operations and systems for a long, long time. Perhaps in this modern day and era there are more efficient and effective ways of doing that. That's one part.

The second part, then, is on the vexatiousness, I guess, of these.... What we're looking at is a small group of people who are being impacted by your bill. It's not that we're taking the whole complaints process apart or that inmates won't have a complaints process that is obviously still fairly extensive.

Can you describe that a bit more? I understand that you were able to visit a facility and talk to the inmates and the corrections staff about this.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Scarborough Centre, ON

Yes, I did, and thank you for the question.

I think it's important to note, and I mentioned it in my speech, that the staff I spoke to, the warden and assistant warden at the one particular institution, actually believe in and back this particular complaints process system. They understand that it serves its purpose and is absolutely needed, and they welcome the opportunity to resolve the grievances or the legitimate complaints. But they're very concerned, very concerned, about the fact that a small number of inmates actually abuse that system. They abuse that system and take away the opportunity to have other legitimate complaints heard and processed in an effective and efficient manner.

Again, this bill is not targeting the whole population. The intent of this bill is to target the 20 inmates who are actually submitting these frivolous complaints on a regular basis.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Wai Young Vancouver South, BC

How much more time do I have, Mr. Chair?

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Kevin Sorenson

You have two and a half minutes.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Wai Young Vancouver South, BC

Opposition members have stated that your bill will punish offenders and at the same time will give corrections staff too much discretionary power. I would think that taxpaying Canadians would want to support our efforts to streamline the process and unclog the process, so to speak. In fact, I would think that some of the other inmates, who may be waiting in line to get their true complaints looked at, would be very supportive of this too. It must be very frustrating for them to be in a long line of 500 complaints or 150 days, etc.

Can you tell us your response to the opposition members' perspective?

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Scarborough Centre, ON

It's important to note that we're not penalizing anyone who is using the system for what it was intended to do. The purpose of the complaint process is for legitimate complaints. It's not to be used as a game by certain offenders. It's not to be used to cause undue administrative hardships. The purpose is not for that. To say that we're penalizing inmates is not the case. We're actually ensuring that legitimate complaints that are filed through this process are actually heard. We're actually benefiting the majority of the population currently in our institutions to make sure the complaints are heard and are resolved in a timely fashion.

With regard to your comments about taxpayers, I have to tell you that once I prepared this bill and had my first and then my second reading, I actually received many calls and e-mails from constituents in my riding in support of this bill. Anything that stands up for the real victims of crime or anything that makes sure the rehabilitation process is there for inmates to reintegrate into society...most constituents, I found, were in support of that.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Wai Young Vancouver South, BC

Did you find, in terms of talking to your constituents, that most Canadians understand that these vexatious complaints place a very real and significant burden on Canadian taxpayers, and in fact that translates to time, resources, and funds that are not going towards programs or other supports within the correctional system?

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Scarborough Centre, ON

It's an interesting question, because I think most Canadians would not realize that there was a complaint process at all for inmates to actually use to resolve their issues within the prison system. Obviously, once I introduced this bill and started talking to my constituents and put the information out in my householders and so forth, I had questions concerning this that they did not know. If there was a loophole and it was a burden to the taxpayer, then it should absolutely be amended to correct that loophole.