Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join in today’s third reading debate on C-14, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (organized crime and protection of justice system participants). I am pleased to note that the bill was adopted by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights without amendment.
The Government of Canada recognizes that organized crime, including gang activity, continues to pose a threat to the safety of our streets and communities, and Bill C-14 is part of our strategy to address this problem. This bill proposes amendments to strengthen the Criminal Code’s responses to organized crime. Most notably, it is taking direct aim at the increasing use of violence committed by organized crime. With these amendments, we are demonstrating our commitment to improving the safety and security of communities across Canada.
I am pleased to note that the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights met March 30, April 1 and April 20, 2009 and heard from the Minister of Justice, officials from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics and a range of stakeholders, including representatives of law enforcement, prosecutors and the Canadian Council of Defence Lawyers.
Bill C-14 proposes amendments in four broad areas.
First, it makes all murders connected to criminal organizations automatically first-degree murder, regardless of whether they were planned and deliberate.
Second, it creates a new offence to target reckless shootings involving the intentional disregard for the life or safety of another person.
Third, it creates new offences to respond to assaults against peace officers which cause bodily harm or involve the use of a weapon and the aggravated assault of a peace officer.
Fourth, it amends the gang recognizance provision to clarify that a judge can impose any reasonable conditions and to lengthen the period of the order to 24 months where an offender has been previously convicted of a criminal organization offence, terrorist offence or intimidation of justice system participant offence.
The bill received very strong support from almost all witnesses appearing before the committee. The proposed amendments to make all murders committed in close connection with organized crime automatically first degree, regardless of whether the murder was planned and deliberate, was well received. As you know, those convicted of murder receive a life sentence, but those convicted of first-degree murder are ineligible for parole for 25 years. In the case of second-degree murder, it is 10 years.
The committee heard evidence from officials from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics confirming that gang-related homicides are on the rise in Canada. In 2007, there were 594 homicides in Canada and 117 were gang-related. The committee also heard evidence from a prosecutor from Quebec that this amendment would be useful in securing first-degree murder convictions in gang homicides, regardless of whether it was planned and deliberate.
As to the second key element of Bill C-14, the creation of a new offence to address drive-by and other reckless shootings, this would be accomplished by prohibiting the intentional discharge of a firearm when in so doing the shooter turned their mind to the fact that doing so could put the life or safety of another person at risk.
There have been claims during committee debates that this offence is redundant and already covered by section 244 of the Criminal Code. This proposed offence is different from the existing and equally serious firearm offence, section 244, because it does not require proof that the shooter specifically intended to cause bodily harm to a person, something which I understand can be difficult to prove in certain cases.
The proposed offence is punishable by mandatory minimum penalties, which increase when the offence is committed for a criminal organization or if it involved a prohibited or restricted firearm.
The proposed mandatory minimum penalties did have the support of the prosecutors and law enforcement representatives, who saw the penalties, including the mandatory minimum penalties, as significant and important tools for prosecutors and law enforcement in the fight against organized crime.
However, the issue of the proposed mandatory minimum penalties was not universally supported. The Canadian Council of Defence Lawyers had concerns with the use of mandatory minimum penalties. As well, the proposed mandatory minimum penalties was the object of a motion to amend by the Bloc Quebecois that would have deleted the mandatory minimum penalties and left only the maximum penalty of fourteen years imprisonment. This motion did not carry.
I would like to take a moment to explain Bill C-14's proposal to have a mandatory minimum penalty for this offence. First of all, the penalty scheme of the proposed drive-by shooting offence is consistent with the overall penalty scheme of the Criminal Code. There are already a number of offences involving the use of firearms where mandatory minimum penalties apply, such as attempted murder and assault with a weapon.
Second, section 244, the existing offence of “discharging a firearm”, already carries a mandatory minimum penalty of four years, and the proposed offence is modelled on section 244. It would have created an inconsistency in the Criminal Code to have no mandatory minimum penalty in the new offence to address drive-by shootings but still have one in the existing section 244.
There should be no mistake about the government’s position, as reflected in Bill C-14: we need to take steps to address the lethal combination of guns and gangs. As an aside, I would also like to mention that the officials from Statistics Canada indicated that nearly 69% of gang-related homicides were committed with a firearm. In contrast, only 20% of non gang-related homicides involved firearms.
The third key element of this bill is aimed at providing increased protection for peace officers and responding to violence committed against other justice system participants. It does this by creating new offences to prohibit assaults against peace officers which cause bodily harm and aggravated assaults against peace officers. These offences are punishable, on indictment, by a maximum period of imprisonment of 10 and 14 years respectively.
These amendments were also supported by prosecution and law enforcement officials and viewed as necessary and useful. In addition, this bill would require a court to give primary consideration to the principles of denunciation and deterrence when sentencing an offender for any of the offences involving assaults against peace officers, as well as cases involving the intimidation of justice system participants, such as judges, prosecutors or jurors. This sends the right message and demonstrates the seriousness with which Parliament treats such acts that undermine the rule of law and the criminal justice system generally.
The fourth area of reform in this bill relates to the gang peace bond provision, which are preventive court orders requiring an individual to agree to keep the peace and to abide by other specific conditions. These amendments would clarify that, when issuing a recognizance order or a promise to keep the peace, a judge can impose any conditions that he or she feels are necessary to secure the good conduct of the defendant. The amendments would also extend the maximum length of the order from 12 months to 24 months, if the defendant had been previously convicted of a criminal organization offence. These amendments also relate to those who are suspected will commit a terrorist offence or an intimidation of justice system participant offence.
These elements of Bill C-14 offer important tools because they seek to prevent the commission of organized crime offences before they take place. They can be an extremely useful tool for police in controlling gang activity, and these amendments will ensure that the orders are used as they were intended.
Police in Ontario use these provisions as part of their gang strategy to control the “small fry” in a gang. The prosecution witness that the committee heard from suggested that Quebec will start using this new provision in Bill C-14 as part of its own street gang strategy.
I am pleased that Bill C-14 has been thoroughly examined by the justice committee and that we are rapidly approaching our goal of seeing this legislation passed into law.
This government has made the safety and security of Canadians a priority. I am confident that Bill C-14 is a strong and urgently needed step in the right direction and I urge all honourable members to support its passage.