Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today on behalf of my party to speak to Bill C-4. Amending the Youth Criminal Justice Act has consequences for all Canadians and it is, without a doubt, a bill of great interest to many.
The bill would amend not only the current sentencing under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, or the YCJA, but the fundamental principles of the system in Canada. Much of the debate in recent days has involved the merits of possible amendments to the current act and this ought to be done with an understanding of the basic guiding principles and the purpose of the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
The YCJA is so important it is appended to the Criminal Code and any compilation of it. It is a separate act from the Criminal Code, it should be noted, because things dealing with youth are not meant to be dealt with all within the Criminal Code. That is fundamental to the comments that I will make today.
Since the foundation of Canada’s criminal system for young offenders, amendments have been consistently made in an evolutionary manner. The current act strikes a necessary and proven balance between the interests of the young individual and those of society, and notably endeavours to have young offenders recognize the consequences of their actions.
The Young Offenders Act came into force in 1984 and marked the commencement of a progressive and effectual criminal justice system for Canada’s youth.
Today the fundamental principles of the Youth Criminal Justice Act can be seen as a balance between addressing circumstances that lead to offending behaviour and reintegrating young offenders into society through rehabilitation.
Public protection would supercede prevention under this bill as proposed by the government, something utterly inexcusable. While we prohibit criminal acts in Canadian society, certainly some will offend regardless of age. This does not, however, mean we should abandon any and all efforts to prevent criminal offences in Canada. The proactive approach facilitated under the current Youth Criminal Justice Act should never be deserted for a reactionary system bent on increasing the number of incarcerated youth offenders.
I will quote from the declaration of principle in the act. It reads:
the youth criminal justice system is intended to: (i) prevent crime by addressing the circumstances underlying a young person's offending behaviour, (ii) rehabilitate young persons who commit offences and reintegrate them into society, and (iii) ensure that a young person is subject to meaningful consequences for his or her offence....
Reading that, how could we disagree with the fundamental principles underlying the existing act? What the government has failed to recognize is that public safety is inherent in the act itself as it exists. As seen in the second principle as I just quoted, the long-term protection of the public is already in the act. The criminal justice system for young persons must be separate from that of adults and the act emphasizes the following: rehabilitation and integration; fair and proportionate accountability that is consistent with the greater dependency of young persons; and their reduced level of maturity.
Also, there is enhanced procedural protection to ensure that young persons are treated fairly and that their rights, including the right of privacy, are protected. There is also indication that there would be timely intervention to reinforce the link between the offending behaviour and its consequences.
Finally, there is an element that promptness and speed with which persons responsible for enforcing this act must be done in a manner to give the young person's perception of time a reality.
Needless to say, preventive, accountable justice is central to the criminal system for young offenders, where public safety is above all understood to be the final aim.
As this House knows very well and reinforced after initial debate on this bill on protecting the public from violent young offenders, the fundamental pillars of the existing act are accountability, rehabilitation, reintegration, and respect for societal values. It is important to highlight the existing laws because they meet the needs of young people and also meet the need for public safety.
This brings me to another point. Bill C-4 would overhaul the sentencing principles for youth criminal justice to include deterrence and denunciation. So, there are a number of elements to this bill, and some of them have been canvassed widely by previous speakers.
Anything that inserts the recommendations of Justice Merlin Nunn in the Nova Scotia report consequent to the McEvoy incident, those are good recommendations. There is no question that this bill will be sent to committee and those recommendations, which have been widely accepted, will be adopted by parties at the committee and sent back here.
I started my speech talking about the need or not for a preamble. I think it is a bit of a red herring. The Youth Criminal Justice Act has a preamble that covers issues of public safety and public security. If the Youth Criminal Justice Act were not needed and not mandated by international convention and not mandated by our sense of how youth are different from adult criminal offenders, then it would not need to exist. However, it clearly needs to exist because it is in the preamble.
We might think that the Criminal Code of Canada, the larger part of the book, would have a preamble saying that the purpose of this act is to make the public secure. However, it does not have a preamble. It just has a title saying that this is a law respecting the criminal laws of Canada. The substance of the Criminal Code of Canada is within the Criminal Code of Canada. I would submit that the criminal code for dummies version that I might author some day would concentrate on section 718, the sentencing principles of the Criminal Code, that takes into account all offences and says that when a court or a judge is imposing a sentence, it should take into consideration the pillars of what we want in society.
This brings me to my next point with respect to criminal behaviour among the youth.
I find it troubling that the insertion of deterrence and denunciation is being attempted here. Why have a separate act? Why not just put it all into the Criminal Code?
My friends across the way will know that in certain presumptive offences, youth who are convicted of certain heinous crimes can be sentenced as adults. We ought to have a separate system because the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children demands that we do. Not only that, we are a progressive, enlightened republic and we understand that children are different. When youth are involved in criminal activity, if there is class of criminal offenders who we ought to have hope for it is our youth, the young men and women who are covered by the act that exists.
I fear that, and we will have this debate at committee, the introduction of a preamble, the insertion of grown-up principles of deterrence and denunciation into the act, will leave judges more and more to treat all youth offenders like adult offenders. It will blur the line between youth criminal acts and adult criminal acts. It will say to judges and to the public in general, why do we need a Youth Criminal Justice act? Why not just have a Criminal Code? I think we would then be on the way to throwing away generations of youth offenders who might be reintegrated into society and who are clearly rehabilitatable because of their age and their lack of maturity. As the act says, they do not understand the consequences of their act.
This bill will go to committee where we will study it. There are some meritorious changes in the act but there are some overwhelming philosophical consequences that will spur on great debate at committee.