Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House tonight to speak to Bill C-26, the tougher penalties for child predators act.
It is often said that the test of a just society is how it treats the most vulnerable of its citizens. Among the most vulnerable are those who cannot always speak up for themselves, namely, our children. In that spirit, the Liberal Party remains steadfastly committed to supporting the protection of children and concrete measures aimed at the prevention of sexual offences against children, as well as appropriate punitive sanctions against those who commit such heinous acts.
Bill C-26 includes no direct measures aimed at preventing sexual offences against children, nor measures to ensure the treatment, rehabilitation, or reintegration of sex offenders. All too often in the debate on these important matters, the opposition is painted as “being soft on crime”. The reality is we need to be a lot smarter on crime. Unfortunately, Bill C-26 just is not a smart bill. In fact, by increasing mandatory minimums, the bill reduces judicial discretion and may result in charter challenges. As parliamentarians, we must ensure that the laws we pass will be effective in reducing the incidence of sexual violence against kids and not merely a symbolic expression likely to be overturned when first implemented.
The last Liberal government made child protection a priority and its first bill, Bill C-2, an act to amend the Criminal Code and the Canada Evidence Act, was assented to in 2005. That legislation proposed amendments to the Criminal Code and the Canada Evidence Act to provide further protection for children against abuse and sexual exploitation by broadening the definition of child pornography, prohibiting the advertising of child pornography, increasing maximum sentencing for certain offences related to child pornography, and creating new sexual exploitation offences.
Moreover, the Liberal legislation sought to facilitate testimony by child victims and witnesses by better enabling the use of testimonial aids, including screens, closed-circuit television, and support persons for all child victims and witnesses under the age of 18 years. The reforms also allowed children under 14 to give their evidence if they were able to understand and respond to questions. Such measures were far more concrete in securing the protection of the vulnerable than what we see in Bill C-26. The offences therein captured new behaviour unaddressed by the Criminal Code and also made improvements to the trial process. By contrast, Bill C-26, by and large, only increases penalties that were themselves recently increased, with no evidentiary basis to suggest that the current regime is not working, and without any effort of reducing the incidences of crimes against children.
Perhaps it is worth emphasizing this point another way. Penalties only come into play after an offence has occurred: a child has been victimized, his or her abuser has been apprehended, and the trial process has been completed, with a guilty verdict returned. By addressing only the penalty these criminals receive, we ignore all of the other elements at play. We fail to consider whether the police have adequate resources and tools to apprehend abusers. We fail to address issues at trial that might prevent important evidence from being adduced. In other words, by addressing the end of the process, we ignore the very beginning, which ought to be our goal: reducing incidents in the first place.
Perhaps the biggest concern with Bill C-26 is that the mandatory minimum penalties lack an evidentiary basis. If one goes back to the omnibus crime bill, Bill C-10, one will find that many of these offences had their minimum penalties increased just two short years ago. It begs the question: If these penalties needed to be increased to the lengths in Bill C-26, why did the Conservative government not do so two years ago? Herein lies the problem. With the law amended in 2012, someone imprisoned under the provisions would likely still be serving prison time less than two years later, particularly given the imposition of a mandatory minimum. Thus, we have no idea if Bill C-10's changes were sufficient.
We also have no indication that the changes in Bill C-26 will be beneficial in any way. If anything, we have evidence to the contrary given the constitutional problems of mandatory minimums. Liberals oppose mandatory minimum penalties as a matter of principle and policy. The evidence simply does not support them. Studies show that they are ineffective in deterring behaviour and, indeed, create more problems than they solve.
Indeed, the whole premise that increasing the sentence will somehow cause would-be offenders to change their minds is absurd. When one considers what that entails, it means we seriously think criminals are looking up the Criminal Code online and deciding, based on the number of years indicated in hard-to-read legal provisions, whether they should go forth and do something. This is just not how the world works, and the Conservatives need to wake up to this reality.
It is not only Liberals who oppose mandatory minimums. The former MP for Ottawa West, David Daubney, a Progressive Conservative MP who retired only recently as director of criminal law policy in the Department of Justice after a distinguished career there, was quoted as saying on the way out the door, “The policy is based on fear—fear of criminals and fear of people who are different. I do not think these harsh views are deeply held”. He went on to say at the same time, because he was subject to so much pressure inside the department, that “somebody has to take the risk of talking”.
By imposing mandatory minimums, the government ignores several decades' worth of overwhelming evidence from around the world that longer jail terms do not deter crime and in fact may have the opposite effect: in 1990, a study for the justice department found that:
The evidence shows that long periods served in prison increase the chance that the offender will offend again.
In 1999, research commissioned by the Solicitor General concluded that:
To argue for expanding the use of imprisonment in order to deter criminal behaviour is without any empirical support.
A Massachusetts report from 2004 called mandatory minimums:
...a recipe for recidivism rather than a recipe for effective risk reduction.
Making matters worse, mandatory minimums lead to prison overcrowding. One of the reasons mandatory minimums increase recidivism is that when more people are imprisoned for longer periods of time, prisons become overcrowded and less conducive to rehabilitation.
The Office of the Correctional Investigator has warned the government, documenting an increase in the number of inmates of nearly 7% between March 2010 and March 2012, predicting continued growth in the prison population as the full impact of Conservative policies are felt. The practice of double-bunking is used to accommodate this increase, housing two inmates in a cell designed for one. That practice has grown substantially. In 2004, 6.3% of inmates were double-bunked; by 2012, under the Conservatives, the number had grown to over 17%.
As studies demonstrate repeatedly, mandatory minimums discriminate against aboriginal Canadians and other minorities. The growth of the prison population includes a significant rise in the percentage of aboriginal inmates.
Indeed, mandatory minimums disproportionately impact vulnerable minorities, especially aboriginal Canadians, who have less access to legal counsel and are generally treated more severely by the justice system. For example, aboriginal defendants are often charged with a more serious offence than non-aboriginal defendants who commit the same act. Aboriginal people are already dramatically overrepresented in Canadian prisons, and mandatory minimum sentences exacerbate the problem.
Here is the point: the crime rate among aboriginal Canadians could be reduced much more effectively by education and poverty reduction than by increased incarceration.
Perhaps most importantly, these mandatory minimums are an unjustified attack on judicial discretion. One of the arguments in favour of mandatory minimums is that they remove discretion from judges who are supposedly “soft on crime”; however, there is no evidence, not a shred, to suggest that sentences imposed by judges are unjustifiably light. Serious offenders receive serious sentences already; mandatory minimums serve only to remove discretion from judges in exceptional cases where leniency might be appropriate.
Furthermore, these mandatory minimums do not truly eliminate discussion at all. Rather, they transfer it from judges, whose decisions are public and subject to appeal, to police officers and prosecutors. If a crown attorney feels that the mandatory minimum prescribed by the law would be too severe, he or she might decide to charge for a lesser offence. Such prosecutorial decisions are made behind closed doors, and no appeals process exists to challenge them.
In short, these mandatory minimums waste taxpayer dollars. They invite expensive constitutional challenges on the grounds that they violate section 7, the right to life, liberty and security of the person, or section 9, the right not to be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned, or section 12, the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.
Already several of these sentences enacted by the Conservatives have been struck down. Other challenges are currently before the courts. They clog up the court system and require the government to spend millions of taxpayer dollars defending laws that were constitutionally suspect from the outset. This is in the face of the legal responsibility of the minister to ensure that legislation brought to the floor of this House is constitutional.
I will wrap up--