House of Commons Hansard #68 of the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was sentence.

Topics

National Aboriginal History Month
Oral Questions

3:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

The House has heard the terms of the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

National Aboriginal History Month
Oral Questions

3:05 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

National Aboriginal History Month
Oral Questions

3:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

(Motion agreed to)

Oral Questions
Points of Order
Oral Questions

June 4th, 2009 / 3:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

The hon. member for Sherbrooke also has a point of order.

Oral Questions
Points of Order
Oral Questions

3:05 p.m.

Bloc

Serge Cardin Sherbrooke, QC

Mr. Speaker, during oral question period, I asked the Minister of International Trade a question and made reference to a letter.

The letter was from the assistant director of the trade law section of the United States justice department. It was sent to three members of the tribunal that is considering the softwood lumber case between Canada and the United States. According to that letter, the United States is using House of Commons transcripts which indicate that the federal government considers loans and loan guarantees legal.

Under the circumstances, I seek the unanimous consent of the House to table the letter in this House.

Oral Questions
Points of Order
Oral Questions

3:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

Does the hon. member for Sherbrooke have the unanimous consent of the House to table this document?

Oral Questions
Points of Order
Oral Questions

3:05 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

No.

Oral Questions
Points of Order
Oral Questions

3:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

There is no consent.

The House resumed consideration of the motion that Bill C-15, An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts, be read the third time and passed, and of the motion that this question be now put.

Controlled Drugs and Substances Act
Government Orders

3:05 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

When the bill was last before the House, the hon. member for St. John's East had the floor. There are 14 minutes remaining in the time allotted for his remarks. I therefore call upon the hon. member for St. John's East.

Controlled Drugs and Substances Act
Government Orders

3:05 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris St. John's East, NL

Mr. Speaker, before question period I was on my feet speaking about Bill C-15, which brings about mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offences, most of which already incur a life sentence.

Instead of having judicial discretion, which has been exercised for many decades in this country on the issue of drug offences with certain exceptions, as my colleague from Windsor—Tecumseh pointed out earlier in his remarks, most of the drug offences have a range of sentencing which the judiciary is trained and experienced in applying to the facts and circumstances of a particular case.

My colleague pointed out an anomaly that existed prior to the introduction of the charter of rights and talked about this matter being debated when he was in law school. It was also the law when I was in law school that there was a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years for the importation of as much as a single marijuana cigarette. Someone coming across the border between the United States and Canada would be guilty, therefore, of importing marijuana into Canada and, upon conviction, the judge would have no choice but to impose a sentence of seven years imprisonment.

It was a matter of great consternation among law students in my day that there would be this manifest injustice in our law, that this was something that our law could contemplate, and yet individuals had been sentenced to seven years in jail for very minor offences, particularly when one thinks of the times when it was very common for people to go back and forth across the border.

My colleague from Windsor—Tecumseh talked about the border between Windsor and Detroit where people go back and forth as a matter of course on an ongoing daily basis. Importation of that particular drug was a simple matter of people having a marijuana cigarette in their pockets, which would bring about a sentence of seven years imprisonment. People's lives were ruined by that law.

It was only the coming into law of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that allowed a court to determine that this kind of penalty for that kind of offence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and was declared to be contrary to the then new Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We should not have to have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms to have sensible laws.

What we are seeing here, though, is the bringing about of new laws to provide mandatory minimum sentences when the current law is adequate. Why do I say it is adequate? It is adequate because the punishment fits the crime whereas mandatory minimum sentences do not bring about a system where the punishment fits the crime or the punishment is fair.

The American Bar Association Justice Kennedy commission in 2004 called on Congress to repeal mandatory minimum sentences saying that they tend to be tough on the wrong people. What that means is the people who are receiving the mandatory minimum sentences are not the people who need to be severely punished for their crimes.

The United States has a lot of mandatory minimum sentences for crimes, including drug offences. What the United States sentencing commission concluded, and this is the Kennedy commission we are talking about, was that mandatory minimum sentences failed to deter crime and reported that only 11% of federal drug defendants were high level drug dealers, 59% of crack defendants were street level drug dealers, and 5% of defendants were high level crack dealers. In other words, the people who were getting nailed by the mandatory minimum sentences and filling up the jails in the United States were the small-time operators, the street-level operators, not the people who were the major drug dealers, the ones who, our government says, this bill is aimed at.

We are going to see the same thing happen here in Canada and I know the member for Edmonton—St. Albert also, I think, accepted that this might not have the right kind of effect, that it might not actually get the people we want.

So, we do have a problem with it for that reason, too, that it would not be a fair system. It would not comply with the needs for reduction in crime. This was the conclusion of our justice department in 2002.

Members might say that was seven years ago, that we have better evidence now. In fact, no evidence was presented to the committee, or to this House, to indicate and show that mandatory minimum sentences would in fact deter or influence drug consumption or drug-related crime in any measurable way.

This is what the Department of Justice said in 2002 and I will quote it once again for members who are listening and for those watching the proceedings on CPAC:

Mandatory minimum sentences do not appear to influence drug consumption or drug-related crime in any measurable way. A variety of research methods concludes that treatment-based approaches are more cost effective than lengthy prison terms. MMS are blunt instruments that fail to distinguish between low and high-level, as well as hardcore versus transient drug dealers.

In other words, the supposed targets of these crimes, the kingpins, those who are involved heavily in organized crime, would be in the best position to negotiate lighter sentences and no-sentence deals with prosecutors, and in fact would not be affected by mandatory minimum sentences.

The problem is that it would move totally away from a rational, reasonable approach to dealing with drugs and the lack of an adequate drug strategy for this country.

There was an approach that was recognized as being valuable, a more balanced approach, the so-called four pillar approach, dealing with prevention, treatment, harm reduction and, yes, enforcement. Enforcement is extremely important. Unfortunately, the reality that has transpired in terms of what effort is being directed toward these four pillars is not a balanced approach. We are spending 30 times more on enforcement than we are on prevention. Drug prevention programs in this country account for 2.6% of the expenditure in relation to our drug strategy; whereas enforcement accounts for 73%. That shows that the priorities are wrong.

We want to reduce drug consumption in this country. We want to deter crime. We want to protect our citizens. That is the whole purpose: to protect the public, young people especially, and all those in our communities who could be harmed by the use of these harmful and addictive substances. However, we need to have a balanced approach, not the approach that has been adopted, that of having mandatory minimum sentences, which has been determined would not work.

Witnesses coming before Parliament, the 2 or 3 people out of the 16 who supported mandatory minimum sentences were asked to provide evidence or point to any study that would show that mandatory minimum sentence for drugs would be effective in deterring the use of drugs or the trafficking of drugs.

Not one person was able to show it was aware of any study. Here is a question that was asked. Has any study been found? I only want one that demonstrates that minimum prison sentences are good, correct and that they help with rehabilitation. Could someone answer that question? I would greatly appreciate it. Apparently, there is not. Witnesses were asked, but these did not come forward.

The majority of the witnesses that came before the committee wanted to scrap Bill C-15. Academics, lawyers, professors specializing in criminology, drug policy and psychology, a former judge, front line community workers and the criminal law branch of the Canadian Bar Association made up of defence council and prosecutors across the country said quite definitively that they did not believe the bill was effective. They believed it would be costly and ineffective and that it would not deter crime.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society, a national organization working with prisoners in the criminal justice system for over 100 years, are extremely interested in rehabilitation and criminal law matters. They are opposed to this because of the effects it would have on our system. We also have the benefit of the experience of our neighbours to the south, because they have had 30 years experience with mandatory minimum sentences. Their experience goes back a long time and they have dealt with drug sentences of significance. They are now looking the other way and starting to change their approach.

The American experts also oppose the effectiveness of this method of dealing with drug use and the pervasive, unfortunate and seriously criminally wrong trafficking of drugs. We already have laws that are doing the job of ensuring that people who are charged and convicted of drug trafficking have a sentence that is appropriate to the crime they have committed, to the circumstances and to the danger to society involved.

We hear the other side talking about the victims of drug crimes. We are well aware of these. Not only that, we are well aware that the judge who is sentencing in a situation like that will have those facts and circumstances before him or her and will use those powers to increase the sentence in any particular case.

We have had debate here today, indicating the extreme high cost, the effect on our correction system and the fact that there is zero proof that the bill will be effective in reducing crime or deterring the use and consumption of drugs, yet the bill is still before the House. I ask hon. members who plan to support the bill to change their minds and recognize that an evidence-based approach to legislation and public policy should be the order of the day and not some simple ideological approach, which seems to be behind the bill.

Controlled Drugs and Substances Act
Government Orders

3:20 p.m.

Conservative

Brent Rathgeber Edmonton—St. Albert, AB

Mr. Speaker, I always enjoy the hon. member. We used to serve together on the public safety committee, and I always find his input and experience as both a provincial legislator and a lawyer helpful. However, with all due respect, I must disagree with his position with respect to Bill C-15.

The NDP is fond of submitting and arguing that 13 out of 16 of the witnesses who appeared before the committee were against the minimum mandatory sentences. I would like him to acknowledge a couple of simple points.

First, almost all of the witnesses were there at the invite of the NDP caucus, specifically the member for Vancouver East. They all said the same thing. The other thing they said, and this is critical, is that they were against prohibition. If they are against prohibition, they will be against minimum mandatory sentences. That is self-evident. If people are against it being illegal, they will be against minimum jail sentences.

Does the member support that? Does the member also support abolishing prohibition and making substances, including cocaine and methamphetamine, legal as the majority of those 13 witnesses said? He is looking for evidence that this law will work. Will he not acknowledge that while a person is incarcerated, he or she is unable to import, export or traffic in drugs during that period of incarceration?

Controlled Drugs and Substances Act
Government Orders

3:25 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris St. John's East, NL

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member and I are both fellow lawyers in our non-political lives and past, and I always listen carefully to his arguments. Unfortunately in this case, what we are talking about is whether the bill is going to be effective in reducing the consumption of drugs in our society and in deterring trafficking and the other crimes that it sets in order to protect the public. That is the important thing, not whether someone we lock up is able to get access to drugs.

I understand that in our corrections system, it is not exactly a given that people do not have access to drugs, so it is really a red herring. One could say the same thing about locking up anybody. If we lock anybody up for life, it will be harder for that person to commit crimes in our communities.

That is not an attack on crime. This is an attack on criminals. We have criminals and we want to protect society by ensuring we have fewer of them. To have fewer of them, we need a policy that works, where people who go to jail and get rehabilitated see some hope for the future.

The protection of the public is about more than locking people up for long periods of time. We need a policy that makes sense, that is based on evidence. In this case, there is no evidence. The hon. member knows that anybody on a committee can suggest witnesses. If there were evidence to support the bill, the Conservatives would have had them there.

The member is a very clever, educated and knowledgeable person. I am sure if that were an issue before the committee, the Conservatives would have found at least one study, somebody, to prove that mandatory minimum sentences worked and that they would deter trafficking and reduce the consumption of drugs. They did not have one. They had the opportunity. They have had the opportunity here today and have not done it.

Controlled Drugs and Substances Act
Government Orders

3:25 p.m.

NDP

Bill Siksay Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Mr. Speaker, I know that in my colleague's time in the House, he has also had an interest in Correctional Service Canada. He will know that just recently the federal correctional investigator, Howard Sapers, issued a report that contained warnings about the situation in Canada's prison system. He was talking about the dangers of overcrowding and the need for additional capacity, especially if these Conservative so-called tough on crime measures actually come into effect.

Could the member speak briefly about how this bill, which will increase mandatory minimum sentences and technically increase the length of stay that people have in jail, might affect situation in our prison system in light of Mr. Saper's recent report?

Controlled Drugs and Substances Act
Government Orders

3:25 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris St. John's East, NL

Mr. Speaker, it is an important consideration. We do have a serious crisis in our prison system.

In many cases, we now have cells that were designed for one person holding two people. It has been suggested that if this bill were to pass, the estimated increase in the number of people incarcerated would go up by 10% to 25%, so we will see not one person in a cell designed for one, but three.

Most of this will happen at the provincial level, another cost being passed on by the Government of Canada without any consultation. The legislation has a cost and nobody from the government side has put a price tag on this. The Conservatives are supposed to be fiscally prudent and responsible spenders of the public money. They pride themselves on this, yet they bring in legislation that would have not only an increased cost but excruciating conditions in our correctional institutions, leading not to greater rehabilitation but to greater resentment and suffering of prisoners. That is the end result of it.

Is there anybody from the other side who has a price tag to put on this, or who will say what the government is prepared to do to deal with the increased costs? Is the government going to build more prisons? Is it going to fill them up with people who are going to have mandatory minimums? What is it going to do to deal with the consequences of the legislation it has before the House?