Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to continue my presentation on this very important bill.
Bill C-4 is an amendment. The enactment amends the sentencing and general principles of the Youth Criminal Justice Act, as well as provisions relating to judicial interim release, adult-youth sentences, publication bans, and the placement in youth custody facilities. It defines the term “violent offence” and “serious offence”, amends the definition of “serious violent offence”, and repeals the definition of “presumptive offence”. It also requires police forces to keep records of extra-judicial measures issued to deal with young persons.
As I indicated yesterday, we will be supporting the bill to get it to committee and we are hoping that there will be one or two amendments to the bill. We actually like some of the provisions of the bill; however, we have some concerns about some of the other parts of it, but overall and on balance, there is some merit to the bill.
On February 4, 2002, the House of Commons passed Bill C-7, the Youth Criminal Justice Act. That new law replaced the Young Offenders Act and was proclaimed on April 1, 2003. The Youth Criminal Justice Act builds on the strength of the old act and introduces significant reforms to address its weaknesses.
We can see that over time legislation does get updated in the House because of changes in society and changes in government or just because in some cases we find things that are not working well with it and we find that, by general consensus, we should improve the legislation.
The introduction of the bill followed an extensive period of review and consultation, much of which is reflected in the following reports. There was a review of the Young Offenders Act and the youth justice system in Canada, and a report on the federal-provincial-territorial task force on youth. There was also a report renewing youth justice, a report of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human rights, and there was a strategy for the renewal of youth and justice, which was a 1998 report.
In March 1999, Bill C-68, the first version of the Youth Criminal Justice Act was introduced and Parliament prorogued in June. The bill was reintroduced as C-3 in October 1999. The bill proceeded through second reading, the Standing Committee on Justice, and prior to third reading, the federal election was called for November 27, 2000 and the bill was delayed.
We see the same process following us through what we had to deal with in previous times where, because of elections or the prorogation of the House, we end up starting over. So it is little wonder the public gets frustrated with us when they see that it takes forever. I think they expect immediate responses and the government is at fault here too because it promises immediate responses because it governs itself by press release, media events and polling.
When something happens in the country, the Conservatives push the button and put the public relations factory into overdrive, fire up the issue, get some bill thrown out here, and then of course nothing happens with it. Then they blame the opposition, but the reality is, as we know, they only have to blame themselves.
There have been many concerns in Canada regarding the Young Offenders Act and the youth justice system. As we had indicated before, and a Bloc member as well indicated yesterday, many of the concerns are based upon misconceptions about youth crime, misconceptions about the legislation and how the system operates. Some concerns have been based on the misunderstanding regarding the limits of the legislation and the unreasonable expectations about what the legislation could actually accomplish, and once again, people have the impression that somehow we will pass a law and the problem will be solved.
When we were dealing yesterday with the bill, there was talk about one of the very good parts of the bill that we like, which is the fact that the youth offenders will be kept separate. They will not be put in with adult offenders.
We recognize that while that is a good idea, and we are going to pass this bill in the House, the fact of the matter is that enforcement of the bill would actually be done by the provinces. We will be putting a financial burden on them to make certain they have the facilities to keep young offenders separate. Some of the provinces do not have the proper facilities.
While the public may think they are going to see some immediate changes following the passage of this bill, they will have to wait until the facilities are improved or built within their own jurisdictions. It could be another decade before the bill actually has its full effect.
There are a number of problems in the youth justice system. The system lacks a clear and coherent youth justice philosophy. Incarceration is overused. Canada has the highest youth incarceration rate in the western world, including the United States, which is a bit of a surprise to me. I did not think that would be the case. In spite of its huge expansion of prisons during the Ronald Reagan era, the crime rate in the United States has actually gone up. I would not have expected that to be the case.
The courts are overused for minor cases that could be dealt with better outside the courts. Sentencing decisions by the courts have resulted in disparities and unfairness in youth sentencing.
The Young Offenders Act does not ensure effective reintegration of a young person into society after being released from custody. This is a very important point. We are trying to rehabilitate people. Society does not benefit from people reoffending. Putting people in jail and making better criminals out of them, so that when they get back out in the street they continue their career of crime, is not what the public wants.
We want these people in jail once and only once. Programs need to be provided to them when they are incarcerated so that when they come out, they come out with a new view on life. They have to be integrated into society. They need to have access to employment.
I would like to provide the House with an example, which I find almost impossible to believe. Six prison farms in this country are being shut down by the Conservative government. If we do anything, we should be building more prison farms in the country because it seems to me that over the years we have lost a connection with rural living, a connection with animals, and taking care of animals. A farm environment provides a perfect case of that.
I toured the Rockwood prison farm just outside of Winnipeg in Stoney Mountain during the break a couple of weeks ago. I saw the dairy herd. It is really sad that it will not be there in a few months. This farm has shown good results for over 20 years. The prisoners get up early in the morning and take care of the animals on the farm. They take ownership. They have a much better attitude than what they would have if they were just simply locked up in a prison.
The government argues that there is not a big market for farm work. It is going to train people in trades such as welding. It is a good idea to get them jobs out in society when they are released. The reality is that learning a welding trade and so on is not the same as working with animals. In some cases it would be a good idea if they could be around humane societies where they could walk dogs and stuff like that, and make some sort of connection with animals.
We are about to lose these prison farms. I realize that is another issue for another day and that day is coming soon. A motion will be coming from committee dealing with the closure of prison farms.
It seems to me that there is a lot of room for improvements in all legislation. We certainly do not want to stand in the way of making sensible improvements to laws. As I have said many times, we are looking for what actually works, where we can show results.
The former solicitor general for the province of Quebec spoke eloquently yesterday on this very bill, about how the Quebec system does work and how the crime rate in Quebec has actually decreased. It is beyond me why we would not have every province in the country and other jurisdictions, which I am sure some are, studying the Quebec model to implement aspects of that system that would work in their own jurisdictions.
To me, that is what a sensible government would do. A government that simply approaches the whole issue on the basis of ideology and says, “Because it worked in Margaret Thatcher's England or Ronald Reagan's United Sates, that is the model we have to follow because we are Conservatives. We cannot accept any Liberal, NDP or Bloc ideas because they does not fit with our overall philosophy”. That is just way out of line.
The justice system should always be an open system where we could adopt the best of a jurisdiction anywhere in the world, whatever gets results. Whatever works properly is what we really want to see in here, instead of a government basically operate this whole system on the basis of political expediency, what is good for it in the short-term, and how it can get some headlines.
I introduced some headlines yesterday that we see across the country, and I maintained that if the press in this country were responsible and started writing headlines like “Soft on crime” and “This legislation does not work”, the government would be retreating, but because it gets these cheap headlines out of these boutique bills and amendments that it introduces, it is encouraged to continue.
We would like to see the bill go to committee. I have one further point on the issue of victims. The government continues to talk about how it supports victims of crime. We in the NDP are solidly on the side of the victims as well. Three years ago, the government appointed Mr. Sullivan to be the victims' advocate and has not reappointed him. He, the government's appointee, is saying that the government has spent too much time on punishment issues, that it has spent not enough time and ignored victims. So much for the government's position of being on side with victims, of supporting and looking out for victims' rights, when its own appointee is saying that this is not true, that the government is not as solidly behind victims as it would like the public to think it is.