Mr. Speaker, I thank the members of the Liberal Party who were kind enough to switch with me today because I need to get back to my riding for an event this evening.
Bill C-4 is a significant attempt to amend the Youth Criminal Justice Act and the NDP will be supporting it at second reading to send it to committee. However, having said that, we have some significant reservations about the bill in terms of the drafting of it. Frankly, I find it quite clumsy in some areas. Some amendments will be needed just to clean up the language. The other concern is that the wording seems to have two agendas, the one that is on the surface and then the one that is behind it. I will come back to that in a moment.
We need to set in context the bill. The major amendments in the bill coming into effect are not very old. They were made in 2003 when the bill was brought into effect. In my legal career, we have actually had four separate pieces of legislation dealing with youth who are in conflict with society, who have committed anywhere from fairly minor criminal offences to very serious ones, including murder.
As a society, we have been struggling since at least the 1960s to find that right balance between treating them as youth, different from adult criminals, but at the same time recognizing that they are not adults even though they may commit offences similar to adults.
That pattern goes back at least 100 years in this country, probably even a bit longer than that. The original young offenders bill, which was called the Juvenile Delinquents Act at that time, dates back to the early part of the 1900s. However, even prior to that, our criminal justice system accepted that there would be two systems: one for youth, the age being a variable one over the last 100 years; and a separate major one for adults. Our courts and our legislatures, both at the provincial and the federal levels, have recognized that for well over 100 years.
One of the concerns I have with this legislation, and perhaps this is where the hidden agenda may be, is that the government has repeatedly indicated in speeches and in its party platform that it wants to significantly alter the barrier between youth offenders and adult offenders. It became a major issue in the last election.
I want to acknowledge the role that the citizenry generally of the province of Quebec played in attacking the Conservative Party during that election on the proposals that were floated during that election of lowering the age to nothing so that any youth could be charged as an adult and sentenced as an adult. That provoked a serious negative response from the people of Quebec and I want to acknowledge the role and the leadership they provided in that regard.
The other point I want to make about the way we have treated youth crime historically in this country is that it has in fact varied quite dramatically across the provinces. Here, I want to acknowledge again that Quebec has been the most successful province, the most successful jurisdiction, in dealing with youth crime. It has the lowest rates of youth crime in the country. It has the most developed and sophisticated system in the country to deal with youth who are in conflict with the law and actively engaged in anti-social behaviour. Quebec does this better than anybody does in Canada, and I want to acknowledge that.
With regard to this particular bill, we need to set it in the context of it being really a direct outcropping, not so much of the ideology coming from the Conservatives, but of the push from the Nunn Commission of Inquiry in Nova Scotia and the McMurtry report on victim compensation in Ontario.
Justice Nunn, who was appointed to that special inquiry, certainly had the most detailed recommendations. He and his commission had seven specific recommendations that the government is claiming it has responded to.
I want to be very clear that Justice Nunn, both in the report and in any number of interviews he did afterwards, was very clear that the act, as is, is a good piece of legislation. It is a workable piece of legislation. The term he used constantly was that it needed to be tweaked. On the surface that is what it appears the government is doing here, but in a number of areas Bill C-4 has weaknesses. I want to address a few of those.
Before I do that, I again want to point out that we will be supporting this bill because it has at least two provisions in it that are badly needed.
One is that it makes it absolutely mandatory that no youth, no matter what crime they are accused of or convicted of and sentenced for, will spend time in an adult institution. That is a principle the province of Quebec has followed quite diligently. Other provinces have not, sometimes because of an ideological approach to punishment of youth, but more often because they simply do not have the facilities to incarcerate youth in a contained setting, especially in the rural and frontier areas of this country. The government has done nothing to assist the provinces in developing those institutional settings.
When the bill gets to committee, as I fully expect it will, this will be an issue that we will be raising with the Department of Justice and perhaps with the Correctional Service about what they are going to do to help the provinces meet the requirements of the statute not to incarcerate any youth in an adult prison. I do not believe they have done any planning for this.
As is so often the case with the government, especially with its crime bills, this bill provides no specific date when it will come into effect. I am afraid that what we are going to see because of this particular provision is the provinces sitting back, which happened in one of the prior incarnations of legislation on youth crime. I know that in the province of Ontario specifically we went almost a decade without being in compliance with the statute and that we were not providing the necessary facilities, even though we were the wealthiest province in the country at the time.
Hence, I am afraid we are going to have a piece of legislation passed in this House mandating that youth not be incarcerated in adult prisons and a number of the provinces will have no ability to comply with that. It is an issue that will need to be explored at committee. It is a good policy, a good paragraph in the legislation, but we must have the provinces in a position to be able to carry it out.
The other point I want to make, and I have to say that we have had some division over this in my caucus, is that there is a provision in the bill that will allow the courts who are sentencing individuals, particularly for serious offences, to lift the historically solid ban on any publication of the name of the accused or convicted person. That is one provision that we would expect to be used rarely.
While I am concerned about the criteria the government has built in as to when the judge would be able to do that, we can see this provision as necessary in exceptional cases, for the protection of society. I am thinking in particular of an accused person who has been convicted and sentenced as an adult, who has very severe psychological health problems and is not likely to be rehabilitated and who is, in the extreme, even a serial killer. That person should be identified to society, both in terms of the police knowing the individual and society more generally. Those will be rare cases. We may not even get one a year. However, I believe that for the protection of society, it is important that we analyze that, set proper criteria in place, and allow that discretion for our judges.
With regard to the negative parts of the bill where I see some hidden agenda items, I think it is necessary to go back to the last Parliament. Pretty late in that Parliament, in spite of all the other crime bills the government was introducing, some of which were silly quite frankly, and in spite of the fact it had been in power at that point for over three years and the Nunn report had come out, the government finally got around to drafting Bill C-25 and presenting it to the House. It was late in the 39th Parliament and that bill just sat and nothing happened to it. The bill included a provision that the Conservatives claimed was a denunciation, but it also had a very clear provision for general deterrence as a sentencing principle. That flies in the face of the hundred-plus years of our history in this jurisdiction of Canada, and generally in western democracies, of treating youth separately, recognizing that because of their lack of maturity, general deterrence does not work with them, generally speaking. It specifically is of no value when we are dealing with youth. That has been accepted in many courts and in all jurisdictions in the western democracies. However, what the Conservatives were trying to do was to introduce in that bill, very clearly, right up front, a general deterrence principle.
The government has backed off that in this bill. It has dropped that, I think, in part because of what happened in the last election in the province of Quebec. The government has maintained specific deterrents, that is, individual deterrents. I am not sure even those will survive a challenge in our courts. The Supreme Court of Canada, as recently as a few months ago and in a series of its decisions, made it very clear that the sentencing principles to be applied to youth who are in conflict with the law must take into account exclusively that they are youth, that courts cannot use principles of sentencing applicable in the adult setting. The Conservatives have recognized that and have limited the bill to specific deterrents, at least on the surface in one of the clauses.
However, when one looks at the amendments to the act overall, there are a number of other places where it would appear they are trying to get general deterrence in, if I could put it this way, through the back door. There is some really clumsy wording for what a judge does in determining whether a person should be tried as an adult, accepting of course the application from the Crown, and separate criteria as to whether they should be sentenced as an adult.
There is also wording in there that does not appear any place else in any youth justice act that we have had in the past, that does not appear in any parts of the Criminal Code, either currently or, as far as I know, historically. But it basically introduces moral culpability, and this may come out of a court decision that I think they may be taking out of context. It is introducing morality and asking the judges, in effect, to interpret that and to apply it on a day-to-day, case-by-case basis.
Knowing a lot of judges and judges who work extensively in the youth criminal justice system, I think this is going to pose a major problem of interpretation. I am not sure the legislation worded in this way will survive a challenge, because it is so vague. That is always a principle when looking at criminal law, including sentencing guidelines. Therefore, it is a major problem confronting us in dealing with this bill.
I want to address one other issue that came out of the Nunn Commission report and recommendations. The Nunn Commission arose as a result of a specific case in Nova Scotia. Justice Nunn was quite concerned about a limitation in the discretionary powers judges had around the issue of protection of society when sentencing an individual.
I do not want to sound trite here because it is a serious concern and one of the times when Commissioner Nunn said that tweaking was needed, but what the government has done here is not tweaking. I think it is just nothing: it is smoke and mirrors. Under the existing law the protection of society is a set of criteria for what a judge can take into account, and at the bottom of the full text of the paragraph in the bill, it talks about the protection of society. However, all I see the government doing here is moving that paragraph from the bottom to the top.
In the press releases and minister's press conferences, where he trots out one of the victim's family members, using them for photo-ops, he is forecasting and extolling the virtues of the bill, saying that it in fact addresses this issue. I have to say that I do not see that. This simply seem to be window dressing. The government has combined moving that clause from the bottom to the top with some new wording that I believe, if anything, when interpreted by our judges across the country, will further limit their discretion in taking into account the protection of society.
It is an example of what I said earlier about the bill, that is both clumsy and, in some cases, poorly drafted. I think there is some ideology behind this coming from the government rather than the officials in the Department of Justice, because this is not a bill of the quality I usually see coming from the Department of Justice. The department is usually quite good in drafting, if not excellent, but there are some problems here.
There are also a number of places where the government replaces sections. It takes sections out and repeals them and replaces them with others. From my reading of the bill, and this is another reason we will be looking at it very closely at committee, the government has in fact left gaps, and we are going to end up with the judiciary and prosecutors in this country not being able to prosecute and/or move to sentencing of adults, because the government has left gaps in the drafting of the bill. So we will be looking at that at committee.
To conclude, we are going to support the bill going to committee. We have serious reservations about parts of it and strong support for other parts. We will do what we can at committee to strengthen the bill and provide greater protection for people who are victims of youth crime.