Mr. Speaker, my colleagues will notice that my voice is a bit hoarse; I have a terrible cold. I have water and throat lozenges in case I cough too much; I have everything I need. I hope I will not have to interrupt my speech.
The Bloc Québécois has serious misgivings about Bill C-4, an Act to amend the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which would toughen prison sentences for youth. This bill is part of the Conservative government's tough on crime policy.
Protecting society is the bill's guiding principle, but I will show that this is definitely not what will be achieved in the long term. The tough on crime policy will not, in the long term, protect society. The experience of California, which has been operating under this policy for 30 years, is proof. Quebec, however, with its rehabilitation policy, has the lowest crime rates in North America.
The courts ordered the State of California to let 40,000 prisoners go, 6,000 of them this past January. Are we supposed to believe that we can promote public safety by freeing 6,000 prisoners who spent many idle years in overpopulated and underfunded prisons that produce aggressive and violent individuals? That is not what Californians think.
Tougher sentencing will not enhance public safety, and I will explain why. Repression does not work. Rehabilitation does not work either because costs are soaring and there is no money for these kinds of programs.
Quebec's juvenile justice system works because of its legal aid program, rehabilitation incentive program, offender education program, probation and, most importantly in this context, the complete overhaul of preliminary intervention approaches under the 1977 Youth Protection Act. Our system is the envy of Californians.
An in-depth statistical study entitled Did Getting Tough on Crime Pay? showed that American tough on crime policies introduced since the 1980s were driven by media manipulation and false perceptions about lenient sentencing for serious crimes. Political arguments for tougher sentencing are invariably based on exceptionally lenient sentences that create false impressions about typical or average sentences.
The opposite is true in this case. Bill C-4, which the Conservatives have dubbed Sébastien's law, does not constitute a response to Sébastien's murder at all because the murderer, who was a minor at the time, is currently in jail for life. People who commit serious crimes go to jail for a long time. This proves that the current law works and that we do not need to change it. We cannot do more than that. No law can do more than that.
Unlike California—which, for lack of funding, is keeping prisoners in spaces that are too small and overpopulated with nothing productive to do, which only feeds their violence—the governments of Quebec and Canada have thus far been spending money to keep prisoners in a healthy environment, to occupy their time productively and teach them to reintegrate into society. If we were to begin overcrowding our prisons, that situation would change, as it did in California.
Just when the Canadian Conservative government is about to make the system even tougher, former journalist Art Montague and a number of associations that work with inmates are showing how the American model, which the Conservatives are emulating, is going through a major crisis that is forcing it to move more towards the kind of system that we have here. The Quebec model, as I said earlier, with its focus on rehabilitation, has the lowest crime rate.
The crisis in California is happening on two levels, socially and economically, each echoing the other. One reinforces the other, which demonstrates not only how completely ineffective tougher sentences are when it comes to fighting crime, but also how devastating it is for the economy and the quality of correctional services. A punitive approach undermines the importance of social services such as education and rehabilitation programs for inmates, which are the key to effectively reducing crime.
Many articles in the Wall Street Journal and The Economist, serious publications that cannot be called leftist, demonstrate how 30 years of tough on crime policies have led to overcrowded prisons. The California prison system is currently at 200% of capacity, with 187,000 inmates.
This sort of overcrowding creates a serious threat to public safety. The 2007 Chino prison riot, where authorities stood by powerless while inmates took control of dormitory Z for more than 20 hours, is proof of this.
As the articles in the Wall Street Journal and The Economist show, prison overcrowding is having a disastrous effect on the state's budget, which already has an enormous deficit. More inmates require more resources, yet the state recently had to cut $1.2 billion from its prison system.
The State of California spends nearly 10% of its budget on its correctional system, but only 5.7% on universities. The reverse was true 25 years ago.
The United States has the dubious distinction of incarcerating more individuals per capita than any other documented country in the world. That was the finding of a 2008 study by the Pew Research Center.
California's high budget costs are forcing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to come up with totally crazy solutions, such as having prisons built in Mexico by Mexicans to house American inmates. The Supreme Court, though, ordered him to release 40,000 inmates.
When prisons are overcrowded, it is impossible to maintain proper health and safety services. This led the Prison Law Office to file a lawsuit against the state. A federal judge ruled in favour of the organization and ordered the state to reduce the prison population by 40,000 inmates, which would bring it down to 137% of capacity, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Just recently, on January 18, 2010, a special judicial panel decided to get around the Supreme Court deadline and order the release of 6,000 inmates.
The crisis is twofold. On the one hand, the high cost of 30 years of so-called “tough on crime” detention policy has killed more sensitive prevention and rehabilitation policies. The current punitive policy has put the prison system in an untenable situation, though, forcing authorities to empty the prisons of thousands of inmates who will reintegrate into society without proper supervision, which is raising serious concerns among local authorities and community leaders in California.
The inmates will leave prison without any training, without any job prospects and without having worked on their rehabilitation. Imagine 6,000 inmates looking for a job while also looking for a place to live. These same 6,000 inmates went to crime school for years in close quarters with nothing else to do than to become more violent and fuel their aggression and rage. Six thousand people are a threat to public safety. The president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League even called this a perfect storm for public safety. Imagine what will happen when that number goes up to 40,000, as the Supreme Court is calling for.
Various media and organizations such as Prison Fellowship, feel that the soaring costs associated with overcrowded prisons in California have other adverse effects, namely budgetary cuts that affect the system's capacity for maintaining or implementing rehabilitation and education programs. In addition to being held in increasingly inhumane conditions, inmates do not receive any help in learning how to control their violence, live in society and become law-abiding citizens.
This lack of services and follow-up, both inside and outside the prison, leaves the inmates to fend for themselves and makes them more likely to end up back in prison. Tougher sentences have a negative impact on all aspects of programs that have for more than 40 years focused on preventing crime through social rehabilitation. It comes as no surprise that the rate of recidivism there is 70%, while in Quebec it is between 10% and 20%.
For all these reasons, the Bloc Québécois will conduct a thorough analysis of the study in committee in order to hear all the players involved and improve whatever aspects of this bill that we can.