Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise today on a bill on dangerous offenders that seeks to create a different emphasis and direction from the approach we already have.
Before presenting the Bloc’s basic arguments and position on dangerous offenders, I would first like to emphasize just how seriously the Bloc takes community safety.
No member of Parliament would want to live in communities where there is a threat to public safety. Whether in Quebec or in any other province, no one would want older people, single parents, children, working people or our parents to find themselves in harm’s way as they go about their regular lives in the community.
I must say that I am a little tired of hearing the demagogic, simplistic rhetoric coming from the Conservatives. Their rhetoric implies that anyone who does not support their position is unscrupulous, lax and not very concerned about public safety. I hope this kind of talk will end. This subject is far too serious for them to indulge in such simple-mindedness.
The Bloc Québécois does not support this bill as worded. Does this mean that the Bloc feels that there is no need for the Criminal Code to contain provisions on dangerous offenders and long-term offenders? Of course not.
The Bloc is perfectly aware of the fact that there are some people who commit criminal acts and, unfortunately, have no self-control nor any control of their impulses and have certain personalities with a very high risk that they will re-offend. Is this genetic or acquired? Is it a question of the environment or their upbringing? Is it a matter of values? Is it a question of their families? I do not know. What I do know, though, is that it is the responsibility of parliamentarians to protect people against this kind of behaviour and these kinds of personalities.
The government’s rhetoric seems peculiar because it tends to imply that these provisions have not been used in the past and do not exist, or that crown attorneys are reluctant to use them.
I would have liked to see the Minister of Justice rise in this House and tell us that his government is introducing a bill on dangerous offenders because prosecutors and the justice system—under his administration—are not using these provisions.
We would then have asked ourselves what procedure must be followed to ensure that in cases where it has to be proved that a person presents a risk, that person must be found to be a dangerous offender, with everything that implies. A dangerous offender can be imprisoned for an indeterminate period.
Under sections 752 and 753 of the Criminal Code, certain individuals are considered dangerous offenders. We do not need the minister’s current bill; the courts and the prosecutors have done their jobs. There are, right now, people who are considered to be dangerous offenders and in some cases, they have been in prison for 20 years.
What is dangerous in the bill and in the approach taken by the Minister of Justice is the idea that we should do things automatically.
If an individual commits—in three instances—an offence on the list of primary offences, the burden of proof will automatically be reversed, and the person will have to prove that he or she is not a dangerous offender. Unfortunately, things cannot work this way in criminal law.
Perhaps this is something we need to complain about; perhaps there should be no Charter; perhaps there should be no trials; perhaps there should be no courts; perhaps we should send everyone to prison once they have committed a serious offence against a person.
Perhaps some people support that kind of justice system, but let them have the courage to say so clearly. Once again, the dividing line is not between people who care about the safety of victims and communities and the people who do not care about it. I am even tempted to say that it is not even the question of reverse onus that defines that line. Reversing the burden of proof is a benchmark, an important cornerstone of the justice system. It is an important principle, as is the presumption of innocence. The courts have offered guidance on what the presumption of innocence means, but that is not the gospel truth. We can agree that, in some circumstances, the burden of proof has to be reversed.
My former colleague, the member for Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, a man who was respected by all parties in this House, once introduced a bill concerning property acquired through crime. It was directed particularly at organized crime. In 1997, I was in this House when we added sections 465, 466 and 467 to the Criminal Code to create what is called a criminal organization offence. New law had to be made. The Hell's Angels, the Rock Machine and the Bandidos presented a real danger to the community because they were engaging in open warfare within the community for control of the drug market. They plainly held the ordinary people in contempt.
I even recall having conversations with senior officials in the Department of Justice who said they wanted to break up organized crime using the conspiracy provisions. In the Bloc Québécois, we were convinced that we had to make new law and that what we needed was a new offence. When my colleague, the former member for Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, introduced that bill, we were convinced that this was what had to be done.
The difference with dangerous offenders is that the Crown has access to existing provisions. There are guidelines: a psychiatrist's report is required. Quebec, for example, has an arrangement with the Philippe Pinel Institute, which evaluates offender profiles. Why specify “after three times”? This is not about the number of times or the quantity. If an individual presents such a profile—if, after the first offence it is determined that the individual lacks self-control, is a risk to re-offend and a danger to society—nothing prevents the Crown from using sections 751, 752 and 753. The section is very clear, so clear that the courts have used it over 300 times.
Of course, there are exceptional circumstances. When an individual goes into a convenience store and commits robbery, that is unfortunate and deserves to be punished. It is reprehensible, and the justice system must act. Nobody has said otherwise. However, such a crime does not mean we are dealing with a dangerous offender who should spend 20 years in prison with no eligibility for parole and be jailed indeterminately. The government's approach is disappointing because it lacks nuance and perspective.
Earlier, I was listening to the Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board. Apparently he is the youngest member of the House. The parliamentary secretary rose twice in this House to call the opposition member irresponsible. How did we suddenly become not responsible? Because in the committee, which included all of the opposition parties, we voted to amend Bill C-9. The opposition member said that we wanted to allow thieves to serve their sentences in the community.
He is a little young to be such a demagogue and to make such an argument, which is extremely simplistic.
The reality is the following: in 1996, we added something to the Criminal Code on the nearly unanimous recommendations of the justice ministers. I was in this House at the time and we realized that the prisons were populated, but that a third of the incarcerations had to do with unpaid fines. People were imprisoned for failing to pay a fine.
Of course, we are not encouraging people not to pay their fine, but should they be incarcerated for that? When Bill C-41 was passed, Canada had the third highest incarceration rate in the world. Only Russia and the United States had more prisoners than Canada.
I want to remind hon. members that the minister was unable to show a single scientific study to prove that there is a link between the harshness of the sentences and the rate of recidivism. We know full well that it is not by having stricter sentences or putting more people in prison that we will make our communities safer to live in.
Sometimes imprisonment cannot be avoided. But if the minister were right, the reality in the United States would certainly deserve a second look: they send seven times as many people to prison as Canada does. However, the homicide rate is four times lower in Canada—and I will mention just one type of offence. In a society that sends more people to prison, we would expect there to be less crime and recidivism, but that is not the case.
Could it be that it is not so much the harshness of the sentences but the real fear of the prospect of ending up behind bars that is the real deterrent preventing an individual from committing a crime?
We therefore agree on the need to include provisions concerning dangerous offenders in the Criminal Code. We agree on the crown prosecutor's responsibility, based on a psychiatrist's or psychologist's report. When an assessment shows that, after an initial offence, a person represents a threat to public safety, we agree that the Criminal Code provisions regarding sections 751, 752 and 753 must apply. We are not saying that the court has to wait for two to five offences, but we cannot support the idea of a list of 22 offences, even though we agree that they are serious. The proposed primary designated offences include sexual interference, invitation to sexual touching, exploitation, incest, attempted murder, sexual assault, attempted rape and indecent assault on female. These are serious offences, but we cannot support a legal system that operates automatically.
This is the main difference between the Bloc Québécois and the Conservatives. We in the Bloc are concerned about public safety. It was the Bloc that first fought for a real anti-gang law. It was the Bloc that brought about the reversal of the burden of proof in cases of proceeds of crime, by introducing a bill that was passed unanimously.
We approve prison terms when necessary, because sometimes they are necessary. Sometimes prison can have a deterrent effect, but the main principle of the administration of justice is individualized sentencing. I repeat, this is the main difference between the Bloc Québécois and the Conservatives. Every situation should be dealt with in light of what led to the crime, the crime that was committed, and the offender's profile.
Sentencing can never be automatic, because when we go in that direction we do not appreciate the facts. That is what justice is all about. Who wants to live in a society where we are on automatic pilot?
Unfortunately, the Conservative government is going in the wrong direction. It did so on the issue of conditional sentencing. The Minister of Justice and the Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board have been talking about conditional sentencing. I repeat, the Bloc Québécois agrees—of course— that the right of the individual to serve the sentence in the community is not a constitutional right. It is a privilege. However, the Supreme Court also stated in the Proulx decision that it remained a sanction. The conditional sentence is a type of imprisonment. Of course we agree that all types of offences do not have the same degree of seriousness.
An 18 year old who draws graffitis on a wall three times is guilty of public mischief. It is reprehensible, sad and unacceptable. However, in the list proposed by the minister, this youth, whose graffiti caused $5,000 in damages in total, would not have been eligible for conditional sentencing. We believe that there are cases where an automatic approach—which precludes a conditional sentence—is not indicated.
We can—of course— understand that it may be less appropriate for individuals who have committed sexual assaults, rape, abuse— especially in the case of sexual offences—to serve their sentences in the community. We want to denounce these acts; we want to send a message about these types of offences.
We should remember that conditional sentences represent 5% of sentences, but the minister was unable to make this fine distinction.
In closing, the Bloc Québécois believes that dangerous offenders must be dealt with in a particular way, that dangerous offenders should not be released if they represent a risk to the community. However, we do not accept the logic of automatic process, a logic by which we are unable to assess a situation according to the offender's profile, his record, or the circumstances that led him to commit the crime.
That is the price to be paid for living in a society where the symbol of justice is a balance among rights; but also a balance among responsibilities. Yes, crown prosecutors must evaluate the situation. Yes, a judge must evaluate the situation. Yes, there are constitutional freedoms that must be protected. Yes, there are situations that call for imprisonment and enforcement.
The danger arises when the response becomes automatic. Every time the Conservative government wants to propose simple solutions to complex problems, we cannot accept that. However, we will never be soft on crime. We will never unconditionally defend criminals. We will certainly be able to say that there are situations where people deserve to be locked up; that they cannot be rehabilitated and deserve a firm sentence of 20 or 25 years in prison. We are able to make distinctions between cases. Once again, we do not accept the logic of an automatic response and we do not accept the contempt in which this government holds the work of the judiciary.
When we see the way in which the courts have interpreted conditional sentencing; when we see the way in which provisions for dangerous offenders have been used, we have no reason not to have confidence in the justice system. Does that mean to say that there are no judges who have gone astray? Yes, indeed it is possible.
This is a Conservative tactic.
In 2003, out of 257,000 cases where there was a conviction, 13,000 cases resulted in a conditional sentence. In his appearance before the Standing Committee on Justice, the minister gave five examples of cases where, a priori, without having studied the file in greater detail, it would seem that there was little reason for a conditional sentence. Does that mean to say that the administration of justice has been brought into disrepute? Does that mean that we should be thinking in terms of automatic responses? Certainly not.
That is why we are very uneasy about this government in connection with justice. Not to mention the blackmail it employs. We began this session in September; tomorrow we will be into November. The Standing Committee on Justice adopted two bills, reviewed budgetary allocations and is beginning review of a third bill. Members have had a respectable workload. However, it is clear that when bills are being examined, witnesses must be heard. Our work of legislative review; our work as members of parliament, which consists in considering the consequences of a bill, must always be done with the greatest attention.