Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to speak today in this House about Bill C-10, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (minimum penalties for offences involving firearms) and to make a consequential amendment to another Act.
This bill has been brought back to the House with significant changes after being reviewed by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. But behind the scenes, an unholy alliance has developed between the reactionary minority Conservative government and the NDP. Together, these two parties put back a series of regressive provisions, ruining the good work of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. I think that the newly amended bill is simply not good legislation.
However, I am happy that this bill has shed some light on the debate on mandatory minimum penalties.
So I am proud to speak, and I invite my fellow members to follow the lead of the Liberals and vote against the bill as newly amended.
The bill the government initially introduced proposed heavier minimum sentences for repeat offences, despite the views expressed by experts on the fight against crime. In addition, the bill even went so far as to add offences unrelated to the crime in question to the previous convictions.
It is important to remind this House why the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights so substantially amended the initial bill. The opposition members on the committee were very reluctant to introduce escalating minimum sentences depending on the number of previous convictions.
In undertaking this tack, the committee members were simply agreeing with most of the expert evidence they heard. In the opinion of all the experts, and it is perhaps rather surprising, there is no proof that minimum terms of imprisonment deter offenders who commit serious crimes.
In certain cases, in California, for example, the method seems to have actually been counterproductive. The annual rate of serious crime has risen since this type of sentencing was introduced. This is the conclusion of the recent report by a commission set up to study the California correctional system.
In January 2005, the Little Hoover Commission submitted to the governor of California its report on what it called “California's corrections crisis”. The report highlights the major failure of the Californian “three strikes and you're out” system. It raises serious questions about the Californian model of sentencing, which there is called “determinate sentencing”. Here in Canada, it is called “minimum mandatory penalties”. In other words, its determinate sentence is the U.S. equivalent of the mandatory minimums that the Conservative government wishes to not implement, but to make even harsher and escalating here in Canada.
The report of the Little Hoover Commission of California is clear:
Despite the rhetoric, thirty years of “tough on crime” politics has not made the state safer. Quite the opposite...
California has one of the highest recidivism rates in the nation. Furthermore, Governor Schwarzenegger himself described the California prison system as a powder keg.
Is it not absurd that at the very moment that Americans are trying to fix their flawed system, Canada, under the Conservative minority retrograde government, is trying to copy the American's old and utterly proven to be inefficient model?
The American model of escalating minimum mandatory sentences is a failed model. Why in God's name, for heaven's sake, would Canadians want to follow a failed model? We want to follow models of excellence. The American model of determinate sentencing, and in particular escalating determinate sentencing, which is the equivalent of the Canadian mandatory minimum sentencing or penalties, is a failed model. In fact, since 2003, some 25 American states have eliminated their lengthy minimum mandatory penalties and their escalator penalties.
Criticisms of mandatory minimum sentencing are based on very sound arguments. It has more than its share of drawbacks. Often, and because of the excessively serious consequences it can have, what happens is charges are withdrawn or pleas are modified to get the charges changed and diminished. Equally often, the threat of a mandatory minimum sentence will discourage an accused person from pleading guilty, which obviously results in greater costs and delays for the system.
As well, this type of measure can also make a jury hesitate to convict, not because of the accused's actual guilt or innocence, because the sentence strikes the jury as being unjustly harsh, given the crime committed, given the accused, given the victim and given the real and proven impact on the victim and the community.
Also, it is known that mandatory minimum sentencing seems, as evidenced by the Australian and American experiences, to hit harder at members of certain ethnocultural communities, blacks and aboriginals. That certainly is not an outcome that Canada should be seeking.
Paradoxically, the increase in mandatory minimum sentences suggested in the newly amended bill would have cost Canada's justice system an exorbitant amount of money. Does this government realize that, by proposing to increase the number and length of minimum sentences and decrease the number of conditional sentences, it would have added a huge number of inmates to our already overcrowded penitentiaries, according to its own Minister of Public Safety?
According to Neil Boyd of Simon Fraser University, Canada would have to build no fewer than 23 new prisons to house all these new inmates. At $82,000 a year per inmate, the bill this government initially introduced would have cost Canadian taxpayers an additional $220 million to $245 million over five years.
In addition, this new obsession with sending people to prison systematically will obviously lead to other additional costs, because it is reasonable to assume that, with this attitude, appeals and lengthy trials will become increasingly common. Mandatory minimum sentences are therefore not the best way of dealing with crime in Canada. They restrict judges' discretionary power to look at the particular circumstances of a case. We should use mandatory minimum sentences very sparingly to target specific offences and, above all, we should limit them to first offences. That is what Bill C-82, introduced under the former Liberal government, sought to do.
The whole point of minimum sentencing is its effect on an individual committing a first offence, taking into consideration the impact on the victim of that offence and on the community where the offence took place. It is designed to take the person guilty of serious wrongdoing out of his or her community for awhile in order to prevent that person from committing other crimes, while at the same time ensuring the community is not put at risk again. In such cases, this kind of sentencing serves its purpose very well.
The problem with escalating minimum mandatory sentencing, proposed in the newly amended version of Bill C-10, was that they applied to repeat offenders. What was initially proposed would have forbidden judges, in the case of a recidivist, to tailor an appropriate sentence that took into account the criminal, himself or herself, the particular circumstances and nature of the new crime, the impact on the victim and the community and the background situation and the possibility of rehabilitation.
In the case of a repeat offence, a judge needs to be able to consider all these factors in order to determine an appropriate sentence. With escalating minimum sentences, this is impossible. With this bill, as it has been amended at report stage by the government with the collusion of the NDP, it will now be impossible.
The newly amended bill shows that the government wants to bring its so-called crime fighting strategy into line with the repressive approach favoured in the United States by the very right wing. The Conservative Party is proposing to emulate a model that does not work.
I might add that the NDP's support for this style of justice is baffling, at the very least. Once again the NDP is sacrificing its progressive roots for short term political gain and being the enabler of the right wing agenda of the Prime Minister.
Let us look at a few facts. The difference in rates of serious offences between our two countries is astonishing. For example, according to Statistics Canada, and that is not a left wing organization, the rates for robberies are 59% higher in the United States than in Canada. What about the rates for aggravated assault? They are 85% higher in the United States than in Canada. What about the murder rates? The murder rates are 275% higher south of our border than they are in Canada.
I am sure my hon. colleagues will be interested to learn that a Calgary resident is 840% less likely to be the victim of murder than a resident of Dallas. If we want to compare the degree of safety of our two capital cities, a resident of Washington, D.C. is 2,700% more likely than his or her Ottawa counterpart to be the victim of a serious crime.
I do not know where the government wants to lead us with its copycat, tough on crime strategy, but one thing is certain. These numbers show—