House of Commons Hansard #160 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was victims.

Topics

Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act
Government Orders

12:15 p.m.

NDP

Anne-Marie Day Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleagues, who contributed a well-informed and different point of view to fuel debate on Bill C-37, the Increasing Offenders’ Accountability for Victims Act.

Let us review the provisions of Bill C-37, which have been discussed at considerable length already. The bill proposes to amend provisions of the Criminal Code concerning victim surcharges in order to double the amount offenders must pay when they are sentenced. The bill also makes the surcharge mandatory for offenders.

This morning, we heard a moving account from the member for Vaudreuil Soulanges, and it made a deep impression on me. Unfortunately, in discussing this bill, we are also talking about victims. It cannot be avoided, because victims are the ones who are the most affected and who suffer the most from such events.

We heard the account by the member for Vaudreuil-Soulanges this morning, and I would like to add something else.

Yesterday evening, I was having supper with my family, who told me that bus drivers are often assaulted. Someone this happened to personally told me that a person had got on the bus and punched them in the face. The person in question was simply angry because the bus did not pull up to the stop quickly enough, which sometimes happens when a car is in the way, for example.

There have been several assaults of this kind in our province. Bus drivers are attacked at the end of their shift. These people feel powerless, as the member for Vaudreuil-Soulanges demonstrated clearly this morning.

People feel powerless when they are attacked, first of all because they do not expect things like that to happen to them. People also do not expect offenders to do things like that, because it is not part of our upbringing to be assaulted and to have to be on the defensive. People believe they live in a safe country.

This bill proposes to amend Criminal Code provisions in order to double the victim surcharge. Needless to say, we support this. The surcharge would increase to 30% from 15% of any fine imposed on the offender. Where no fine is imposed, the surcharge would be $100, up from $50, for summary conviction offences. It would increase from $100 to $200 for indictable offences. This section is somewhat complex, but in short, the fines are being doubled.

These amounts are significant. Particularly as those who receive them to assist victims are often community groups. In Quebec, they are called Centres d'aide aux victimes d'actes criminels, or CAVACs, and there are equivalent centres across Canada. They are often groups that intervene to provide assistance to victims.

People often do not know that such a system exists and that they can contact a CAVAC if they are victims of a crime.

The CAVACs are funded as follows. They receive funds that are generated in part by offenders, and contribute them towards the activities conducted by groups that provide assistance to victims of crime.

The NDP members will be supporting this bill, but they have reservations. They would like it to be re-examined in committee, simply because judges are not being allowed to impose sentences that may vary, as needed and depending on the person before them. Once again, this is something that comes up in many of the bills I have seen recently in the House.

Many offenders live in poverty. These are criminal groups or individuals with records. In some cases mental illness is involved, but not necessarily. For example, these people may be dropouts who have lived on the street with nothing and who systematically resist integrating into our society, because it does not suit their values. They want something different and they want to make their own laws.

We must intervene and educate them; this is important.

I would like to remind the House of something. In 2003, crime cost about $70 billion, $47 billion of which was borne by victims. That figure represents 70% of the total cost. A 2004 study estimated that the cost of the pain and suffering suffered by victims was in the region of $36 billion. It is truly important to understand the victims, and the NDP will continue to support families in this regard.

Many eligible victims very rarely seek compensation, one reason being that they do not know these services exist. The member for Vaudreuil—Soulanges said this again this morning. He did not know that there might be a system like that. The system also helps to reassure the victim and lets them know these measures exist and sometimes helps them cover various expenses. When a person is a victim of violence, they are scared, they do not take the same routes they used to, they are afraid to get on the bus or go out in a car, afraid of being accosted even when they are walking on the street, and so on. We have to offer these people services, and that has a social cost. Often, the victims do not even think of asking for anything.

Our concerns relate to the elimination of the judge’s discretion to decide whether paying a surcharge would cause undue hardship. In Quebec, and I imagine things are the same in the other provinces, although I have not checked, judges sometimes decide to require a person to do community service when they do not have the means to pay the surcharge in question. These surcharges are important, because they largely fund the assistance provided for victims. They may even cover up to 100%.

Sometimes, when a person is unable to pay the surcharge, they are required to perform community service. It must be open to the judge, at their discretion, to decide that the young person in question will have to approach a community group, and the group will have them do painting, wash windows, and so on. An entire system is in place to help the young person. I say “young person” because young people are often the ones on whom surcharges are imposed, in the case of petty crimes committed by gangs, for example, as the member for Vaudreuil—Soulanges described this morning.

It is important to retain community service. The measure would be too punitive it if were applied in its simple form. That is why we are asking that this bill be referred to committee. We will then be able to examine it and fix some of its flaws. We hope the surcharges will not be disproportionate to the offender’s ability to pay.

I will support this bill at this stage of the legislative process in the hope that the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights will take all the time it needs to examine it, meet with stakeholders and perhaps amend certain aspects that need to be reconsidered. This bill is good for families, but it could be even better and at the same time preserve the right, the power and the flexibility that are needed for making the best possible decisions.

Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act
Government Orders

12:25 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, we have put a lot of emphasis on the importance of victims, and justifiably so. There are many victims of violence who are looking to the government to do what it can to ensure that there is some form of assistance available, either directly or indirectly.

We do not necessarily believe that it is just the surcharges that are there to support victims but also that the government has a role to play in terms of direct assistance.

I am wondering if my colleague could provide some thoughts on the importance of the government coming to the table to support victim support groups or victim services agencies?

Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act
Government Orders

12:25 p.m.

NDP

Anne-Marie Day Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, QC

Mr. Speaker, that is an excellent question. Funding is often the lifeblood of community organizations that support victims. We have to really make an effort. Taxes and surcharges are not going to meet the needs of all these organizations.

My answer to the hon. member is quite simply this: yes, organizations that help victims of violence should receive direct funding.

Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act
Government Orders

12:25 p.m.

NDP

Robert Aubin Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask my colleague from Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles if she has noticed what seems to be a general trend. We see it again with this bill, which would eliminate judicial discretion. In a fair number of bills introduced by the Conservative government, the responsibility is shifting increasingly to those who administer the law. The latter will be reduced to establishing relationships, with charts and tables, instead of relying on their judgment. However, a judge—as the term suggests—can weigh the pros and cons, and take into account the circumstances of each situation.

Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act
Government Orders

12:25 p.m.

NDP

Anne-Marie Day Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague. The government has a strong tendency of taking away judicial discretion. That is what we have noticed in a number of their bills and here in the House. The NDP is calling on the government to restore judges' ability to choose and to have a certain flexibility when they hand down a sentence to an offender and in other situations. I would say that this is a dangerous trend. Judges are intelligent and capable of discernment and handing down a sentence that is commensurate with the crime in order to protect society.

Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act
Government Orders

October 5th, 2012 / 12:30 p.m.

NDP

Mylène Freeman Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am going to support Bill C-37 so that it can be referred to committee. This bill proposes amendments to the provisions of the Criminal Code on victim surcharges, including subsection 737, in order to double the amount that offenders have to pay when they are sentenced, and to make the surcharge mandatory for all offenders. The surcharge is imposed at the time of sentencing for guilty offenders. It is used to finance crime victims programs and services in the province or territory where the crime was committed.

The Criminal Code requires that a judge impose a victim surcharge in all cases, but the judge also has discretionary power to waive it if the offender can demonstrate that it would cause undue hardship to him or his dependants. If the court decides not to impose a federal surcharge, a rationale has to be provided for the decision and the reasons have to be entered into the court record of deliberations. I am in favour of enhanced funding for victims programs.

On the surcharge for victims, I have some statistics. On May 27, 2010, 729 victim service agencies in Canada reported serving nearly 9,500 clients on that day. It is worth noting that three-quarters of them were women. Of those victims who received services, 81% said that they had been a victim of a violent crime.

In 2009-10, the most frequent types of assistance provided directly by victim services providers in Quebec included court-related guidance or information, courtroom assistance, information about the process and structure of the criminal justice system, preparing victims or witnesses, and assistance in compensation claims.

It is clear that helping victims of crime is costly and that we need to devote more to those who are suffering after a violent crime or any crime that has been done to them or to their family.

Although I support the essence of this bill and I agree that a larger levy on victims' service is, in general, a good idea as it would help us contribute more to victims, I do have some concerns and I hope the committee will closely examine this bill. For instance, the provincial programs that would be funded by this increased surcharge are essential and they need the support. There are not enough victim support services in the provinces. People who are the victims of crime often require psychological and social support during and after the legal process. Therefore, I approve of this. It is quite appropriate that those who commit the crimes be forced to invest in the programming that would help heal, not only for specific victims but for those who are similarly in need.

I call attention to the fact that the most glaring example of an underserviced demographic of victims is the families of missing and murdered aboriginal women. Yesterday, Ottawa had a strong show of solidarity with the families who have lost daughters, mothers, sisters and wives to horrible violence and unsolved disappearances. A hard-working group called Families of Sisters in Spirit organized a massive vigil on Parliament Hill yesterday. Its message was very strong and clear. Hundreds of women who have been taken will not be forgotten and the families and allies will not rest until the government recognizes its responsibility to these victims and to aboriginal women across the country who remain in danger.

Some of the saddest stories we heard on the Hill yesterday were about cases where crimes were not thoroughly investigated for months and sometimes years and where the victims of crime had to take it upon themselves to investigate the disappearances of their own loved ones because they could not get access to the services they needed. One of the repercussions of this phenomenon of disproportionately unsolved murders is that the families were told that they could not receive the victim services until the cases were solved. If no one is solving the cases, then, unfortunately, these families are left to themselves entirely.

When it comes to aboriginal women, it is not just the victims of kidnapping and murder who badly need the victim services. It is for the families and communities that we really need to invest in prevention. An aboriginal woman is five times as likely as a non-aboriginal woman to be the victim of a violent crime. This is mostly due to extreme rates of poverty. Over 40% of aboriginal women are living below the poverty line. These women have a shameful lack of access to police services, legal services, shelter and psychiatrists, let alone provincial victim services.

We do need better and more effective victims' services. If we can do something in this House to increase those kinds of services to those who need it, we especially need to think about increased funding to first nations, Métis and Inuit communities for those both on and off reserve.

This bill would make it impossible for a court to order that no victim surcharge be imposed on an offender when it is demonstrated that the payment of such a surcharge would cause the offender—or his dependants—undue hardship. Currently, judges have discretionary power to order the payment of a higher surcharge or to waive such a surcharge.

We on this side of the House have one concern and that is the power of judicial discretion. This discretionary power allows judges to waive the surcharge for criminals to whom it would cause undue harm or cause undue harm to their families. This is important for people who have committed crimes and are very poor.

Poverty is often the root cause of crime and financially crippling a person on top of sentencing them could make rehabilitation impossible. It could also make it difficult for their children to properly integrate into society and so on. With respect to the withdrawal of the clause on undue hardship and the provision seeking to double the surcharge amount, this would be problematic for low income offenders.

I will share with the House some statistics about who a lot of these people are. Eighty per cent of all federally sentenced women report having been physically or sexually abused. This rises to 90% when we are talking about aboriginal women. Two-thirds of federally sentenced women are mothers and they are more likely than men to have primary child care responsibilities. There are about 25,000 children whose mothers are either in federal prisons or provincial jails, and that was as of last year. Separation from their children and the inability to deal with problems concerning them are major anxieties for women in prison. If poverty is a contributing factor, then we can imagine the situation facing these families.

Women who have been in prison also have much lower employment rates than men who have been incarcerated. Not only do women experience more poverty than men but most criminalized women have low levels of education, limited employment and economic records and usually live alone in extremely poor housing conditions. In the Prairie region, most of the women in prison are indigenous. They represent 85% of the female prison population.

As I said earlier, these are people who are living in poverty and do not have access to social services. They also lack access to health care and education.

The issue of judicial discretion needs to be examined more closely. If it is used often, we may need to look at more prevention. We may need to look at providing more help to those on the ground who are living in poverty and may end up becoming criminals in the future. We really do need to be concentrating more on prevention.

I will be voting to send the bill to committee in order to examine it further because I agree that we should be funding more services for victims.

Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act
Government Orders

12:40 p.m.

NDP

Philip Toone Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague from Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel for her very informative comments, which were much appreciated.

I would like to point out that this bill would once and for all do away with the discretion judges currently have with respect to penalties, sentences and fines. Could the member comment a bit more on this matter?

Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act
Government Orders

12:40 p.m.

NDP

Mylène Freeman Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, this was a recommendation made to the government. It was found that judges were often using their discretionary power to waive the fee. We really need to look at why that is. Judges are human. They are going to see things differently. They are not always going to apply the law perfectly unless it is made mandatory.

If it is being invoked often, the problem is more likely because of the fact that a lot of people who live in poverty become criminals. We need to look at addressing that problem before we start taking away the discretionary power of judges, who are really trying to help. Many of those women are mothers with dependents. If they are unable to pay, then in a sense we are creating more victims.

Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act
Government Orders

12:40 p.m.

NDP

Djaouida Sellah Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague for her speech. She is a very brave and highly intelligent woman, and I found her remarks very relevant.

As we are all aware, this bill is an election promise made by the Conservatives during the last election. The Conservatives would like to show the world that they want to provide better protection to victims and families, but we know that everyone here is in favour of justice and safe communities.

There is something that worries me. In my colleague's opinion, what would be the repercussions of taking away judges' discretionary power to waive a surcharge, particularly for aboriginal people who do not have the means to pay these surcharges?

Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act
Government Orders

12:40 p.m.

NDP

Mylène Freeman Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the hon. member for Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert for her very important question.

A bill like this one goes hand in hand with prevention. The federal government needs to understand that it is responsible for the first nations, the Inuit and aboriginals.

It seems as though the Conservatives do not understand that it is their responsibility to provide services to these communities.

We need to provide them with greater access to culturally relevant education.

Providing preventive measures would mean fewer victims in the future. As I was saying, this has to go hand in hand with more funding for the victims. There will always be victims, but I think there could be fewer. I also think the government should focus its efforts on prevention.

Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act
Government Orders

12:45 p.m.

NDP

Philip Toone Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, today, I would like to participate in the debate on this bill.

Clearly, this bill would benefit greatly from additional debate in committee. It is very important that all the points that are raised there be debated.

Once again, the Conservatives are trying to pass a bill that will take discretionary power away from judges. We have to ask ourselves why that is. What is the reasoning behind this? What impact will it have?

In court, during the testimony and sentencing, judges are in the best position to understand and to determine the proper sentence for the offence committed. Why is this not being taken into consideration? This bill takes away judges' discretion, and I am very concerned about that.

Canada's legal system allows a judge to clearly understand the testimony, the evidence and the circumstances. The burden is on him to impose a fair and equitable sentence. We in the House of Commons must not think that we know all the facts and that we are always right, when all of this should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

We do not know the circumstances of the crime or the offender's ability to pay the fines. We thus do not know what sentence would be fair and equitable. Let us not forget that the purpose of a sentence should be rehabilitation; it should not encourage the offender to reoffend.

I will come back to that in a moment, but I would first like to share with the House what the Quebec justice minister has to say about fines on his website:

A fine is a sum of money that must be paid to the State by an offender within a time frame determined by the judge.

He then adds the following, and this is the part that seems important to me:

Before imposing a fine, the judge must be satisfied that the individual has the means to pay it.

This is not the first time in Canada's legal history or in our legal system that we have heard this said. In a legal system such as ours, the sentence must fit the crime. In the past, there were debtors' prisons, prisons for people who did not pay their debts. We can impose all the fines that we want on a homeless offender who does not have any money, but that will not change the fact that he does not have any and that he will never be able to afford to pay those fines.

We should not take away from a judge the power to waive a surcharge when he is fully aware that the offender does not have the means to pay that surcharge. The judge knows that because he is the judge of the facts and he is well informed.

Yet, that is what the bill will do. The judge will be fully aware that a fine will never be paid, but he will still have to impose it. It makes no sense. It is absolutely illogical that a judge who knows the facts should have to do that.

There a reason why we have our modern legal system. The trial judge looks at the facts and he is the one who has the responsibility of imposing a sentence, based on the offence and on the offender's ability to serve that sentence.

The sentence should also be an incentive to rehabilitate. I find it hard to believe that imposing a series of fines can lead to rehabilitation.

There is one thing we often hear and cannot ignore: jails are a place where offenders increase their ability to break the law, to remain offenders. Jails are crime schools. We should not feed jails like that. If we create this situation and the offender cannot pay his fine, what are we going to do? Are we just going to ignore the fact that a fine was imposed? No, we cannot do that. The fine exists and the offender must pay it. If he is unable to do so, he will be fined again and this will generate yet another legal process. We are imposing a burden that cannot be supported. It is important to understand that.

The current act already provides for a 15% surcharge on any fine imposed on the offender. If no fine is imposed, the surcharge is $50. That surcharge must be imposed because that is what the law says. Now, we want to increase the burden twofold, from 15% to 30% when a fine is imposed, and from $50 to $100 for offences punishable by summary conviction, when no fine is imposed.

Under the current act, the judge has a discretionary power. Section 737(5) of the Criminal Code reads as follows:

When the offender establishes to the satisfaction of the court that undue hardship to the offender or the dependants of the offender would result from payment of the victim surcharge, the court may, on application of the offender, make an order exempting the offender from the application of subsection (1).

As we can see, the lawmakers who wrote this legislation were wise enough to understand that, sometimes, one is not in a position to pay a surcharge. They even went a little further and said that the court must take into consideration the offender's ability to pay the surcharge. They also thought about a dependent: would imposing a surcharge harm this dependent? A dependent is usually a child, but it could be anyone.

I would point out that in international law and Canadian law, the needs of the child must always be given priority when a bill is drafted. And whenever judges have to interpret legislation, they have a duty, an obligation, to consider the impact it may have on a child. Looking at the bill that is before us, it may be that a judge will have no choice but to impose a surcharge, knowing not only that the burden is too heavy for the offender, but also that it might cause hardship for a dependent child of the offender. What this means is that it would be contrary not only to a number of Canadian laws, but also to international obligations.

It is incomprehensible that we could enact bills in Canada that might impose an unreasonable burden on a child who, clearly, does not have the means to pay a victim surcharge levied against the child's parents. We have to avoid, at all costs, imposing that kind of burden on a child who is an innocent party in the situation. And yet what we are doing is creating a situation that could cause hardship for a child. Frankly, and I will say it again, we would benefit from a longer and more thorough discussion in committee. That is why I will probably vote to send the bill to committee, but that does not mean it would not benefit from being amended.

I also want to note that the popular encyclopedia Wikipedia, which I often find to be an inspiring source, talks about surcharges and fines. This is what it says:

Fines are counter-productive if the offender commits more offences to get the money to pay the fine.

What that means is that there is little point in imposing fines when the person is not able to pay them, because that could actually encourage recidivism. A person who is not able to pay their fines has to get the money somewhere, or they will be charged with another offence. And again, that encourages recidivism. We are potentially creating a vicious circle. I hope that everyone will think carefully about this and there will be a good debate in committee.

Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

NDP

Guy Caron Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my riding neighbour for his speech on Bill C-37. I have a specific question to ask him. We talk a lot about judges' discretionary power, but I would like to address another matter Senator Boisvenu raised with respect to the bill, when he presented it to Canadians. According to his comments, increasing the victim surcharge will be a deterrent to crime.

Can my colleague comment on the statement the senator made when introducing the bill?

Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

NDP

Philip Toone Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my riding neighbour, who represents a riding with a name that is too long to say today.

The surcharges and fines have a definite purpose. However, I do not believe that this purpose is properly reflected in the bill being studied, where surcharges are not used to rehabilitate, but to punish the offender. In that sense, it would be effective. The problem is that we must have a balanced judicial system. We must balance the desire to punish and the desire to prevent recidivism. The bill only deals with punishment, and there is nothing about rehabilitation.

Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

NDP

Mathieu Ravignat Pontiac, QC

Mr. Speaker, I listened carefully to what my colleague said in this debate, which is an important one because it concerns victims and crime. I heard him talk mainly about judicial discretion. What does he think is dangerous about tampering with judicial discretion?

Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

NDP

Philip Toone Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague, whose riding name is much longer than that of my neighbour from Témiscouata, Les Basques and so on.