Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today for the third reading of Bill C-37, the increasing offenders' accountability act. The bill proposes amendments to the victim surcharge provisions of the Criminal Code, which would address longstanding issues with the operation of the victim surcharge.
I am also pleased to say that Bill C-37 was reported back to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights without any amendments.
All members of the House who believe that responsibility for crime begins with the offenders who commit those crimes should applaud the reforms included in the bill. Bill C-37 is not a long bill, nor are the amendments it proposes overly technical or complicated. However, we must not be misled into thinking that the proposed amendments are not of vital importance. Indeed, Bill C-37 is a small bill that will have a big impact. It will have an impact on offenders, who will be held accountable for their actions, and it will have an impact on victims of crime who need services to help them recover from their victimization.
The current victim surcharge provisions in the Criminal Code have not met their intended goals. The requirement for an offender to pay a victim surcharge dates back to amendments made to the Criminal Code in 1988. Ten years later, amendments to those original provisions were proposed in the report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights entitled, “Victims' Rights—A Voice, Not a Veto”.
The government response to that report described the original victim surcharge provisions as having two goals. First was to make each offender accountable in a small way to victims of crime as a group. Second was to generate revenue for victim services. The government response to the committee's report also noted that the original victim surcharge provisions had fallen far short of expectations. The amendments to the victim surcharge provisions that followed in 2000 also failed to address problems with the operation of the victim surcharge. How do we know this? The victim surcharge is still not being applied in all appropriate cases and it is not generating the revenue that it should for victim services.
There are two very important consequences that flow from the problems with the victim surcharge provisions. The first is that offenders are not being held accountable for their actions. Currently, a sentencing court may exempt an offender from paying the victim surcharge if it will cause undue hardship to the offender or the offender's dependants. However, overly high waiver rates have revealed that the victim surcharge is not being imposed as it should. The victim surcharge is being routinely waived without the required supporting evidence showing that it would cause undue hardship to the offender or the offender's dependants.
The money from the victim surcharge is used by the province or territory where the offender is sentenced to fund services for victims of crime. This is how the first goal of holding offenders accountable to victims of crime as a group is intended to be met, by having each offender contribute a small amount to victim services in their province or territory. As many offenders are inappropriately exempted from paying the victim surcharge, it is clear that this goal is not being met.
The second consequence flowing from the problems with the current surcharge provisions is that revenues from the victim surcharge have never realized their potential. The provinces and territories have reported this problem since the victim surcharge provisions were first created. Therefore, we also know that the second goal of the victim surcharge, that of generating revenue for victim services, has not been met either.
This is why we introduced Bill C-37, to ensure that for the first time the victim surcharge would meet its goals. Bill C-37 would address the problems with the victim surcharge provisions in the Criminal Code in three ways. First, it would ensure that the victim surcharge is applied to all offenders by removing the ability of the sentencing court to waive the victim surcharge for undue hardship. This is a crucial step in reforming these provisions.
During the committee hearings for Bill C-37, a number of witnesses testified that they considered this to be the most important element of the bill. Why? If offenders are not required to pay the victim surcharge, then no amount of reform in this area will be able to effectively address the problems with these provisions. Therefore, the first step in ensuring that the victim surcharge makes offenders accountable and generates revenue for victim services is to make it mandatory in all cases without exception.
The second step taken by Bill C-37 is to provide alternatives for those offenders who are truly unable to pay the amount owing. The victim surcharge amounts are not high, however, we recognize that there will be cases where offenders simply will not be able to make the payment.
Currently, an offender may not discharge the victim surcharge through a fine option program. Bill C-37 would address this by allowing offenders who cannot pay the victim surcharge to discharge the amount owing by participating in provincial or territorial fine option programs. Providing this option for offenders is a reasonable alternative that would ensure the victim surcharge is applied in all cases while allowing offenders who are not able to pay the amount owing to demonstrate their accountability for the harm they have caused to victims by performing community services associated with fine option programs. This is a fitting compromise that meets the first goal of the victim surcharge.
These two proposed amendments of removing the court's ability to waive the victim surcharge and allowing offenders to discharge the victim surcharge through the fine option programs are companion amendments. They work together to make offenders accountable.
Victims' advocates who appeared before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights on Bill C-37 gave their views on offenders participating in fine option programs in cases where the offender is unable to make contributions to victim services. All agree that this is a reasonable alternative for these offenders.
The third area of reform proposed by Bill C-37 is to double the amount of the victim surcharge. Currently, the victim surcharge is 15% of any fine imposed. Under Bill C-37, this amount would be raised to 30% of any fine imposed. In cases where an offender is not sentenced to pay a fine, Bill C-37 would double the victim surcharge from $50 to $100 for summary conviction offences and from $100 to $200 for indictable offences.
At first glance, it might appear that these elements of the bill serve only the second goal of the victim surcharge: to generate revenue for victim services. However, this is not the case. In fact, this reform would serve both the goals of the victim surcharge as it would make offenders accountable to victims as a group by ensuring that the offenders contribute meaningful amounts to victim services.
As I noted earlier, the victim surcharge has not been increased since 2000. Twelve years have passed since the last increase. Twelve years have passed with victim services not receiving the revenue they expected and needed. Twelve years have passed with victims not being able to access the range of services that they require because the funding simply was not available to expand those services to meet victims' needs.
Once again, I will refer to the testimony presented by the victims and the victims' advocates at the committee hearings for Bill C-37 because they said it best. They shared their first-hand experiences about the need for victim services and how unrealized victim surcharge revenues have affected the availability of those services.
We heard about victims who had gone into debt and remortgaged their homes in order to pay the cost of their victimization. We also heard about victims who hired specialized counselling to help them deal with the aftermath of crime, but who had to pay for those services themselves because these services were either unavailable or only available on a short-term basis under provincial-territorial victim service programs.
This testimony was not offered to lay blame on provincial-territorial victim service programs. We know that those programs are staffed with dedicated individuals who are committed to helping victims and who accomplish great things with the limited resources they have. This testimony was offered to illustrate the need for more resources so that victims would be able to access the help they need without going into debt.
The increases proposed by Bill C-37 are not extreme. These are not huge sums of money. For most offenders, they would be manageable amounts. However, for those offenders who cannot pay the victim surcharge, the fine option programs would be available to discharge the amount owing.
Despite the documented need for reforms to the victim surcharge provisions and the many benefits of the approach proposed by Bill C-37, questions have been raised about the potential impact of these amendments on impecunious offenders. In fact, it has been suggested that we did not consider this issue when developing Bill C-37.
As I noted earlier, Bill C-37 proposes to amend the Criminal Code to allow the victim surcharge to be satisfied through an offender's participation in a fine option program. Despite this, it has been suggested that removing the option of waiving the victim surcharge in cases where payment could cause undue hardship to the offender or the offender's dependants would result in the imprisonment of offenders who are unable to pay the victim surcharge. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the reforms in Bill C-37 would result in a return to the debtors' prisons of Dickensian times. This is simply not true.
Fine option programs exist in all but three provinces. Therefore, in the majority of cases, offenders who are unable to pay the victim surcharge would be able to avail themselves of a fine option program to discharge the amount owing. Fine option programs are not offered in Ontario, British Columbia or Newfoundland and Labrador. However, all three of these provinces offer alternative mechanisms for offenders who are unable to pay a fine in full at the time of its imposition. All of these mechanisms would be available to offenders who are unable to pay the victim surcharge.
For example, British Columbia offers an offender who is unable to pay a victim surcharge the ability to make an application to a judge to have it converted to a community service. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the fines administration division provides financial counselling to debtors. The division may either enter into a final payment agreement with the offender or the court may grant an extension of time to pay fines ordered if the offender is unable to pay immediately.
Other mechanisms, such as licence suspension or revocation, are available in all three provinces to encourage offenders to pay. I should also note that any sentencing court in Canada may order a payment plan or an extension of time to pay for an offender who is ordered to pay the victim surcharge. This has always been the case and it would not be changed by Bill C-37.
Bill C-37, therefore, would ensure that there are alternatives for offenders who cannot pay the victim surcharge and this would satisfy the first goal of the victim surcharge, which is to make offenders accountable in a small way to victims.
Finally, I will mention one last point made so eloquently by victims and victim advocates at the committee hearings for Bill C-37. They noted that, over the past 25 years, the potential undue harm to offenders who must pay the victim surcharge has received a great deal of consideration. However, no one has considered the undue harm to victims from the waiver and non-payment of the victim surcharge. Their point is significant and deserves our attention.
Victims need help in dealing with the aftermath of crime. Its effects are far-reaching and may last a lifetime. Victims, through no fault of their own, find themselves in a situation where they require services to put their lives back together. Those services are essential and they require appropriate funding. The victim surcharge is one way of adding to the funding provided by the provinces, the territories and the federal government.
Through the federal victims strategy, we provide $11.6 million annually through the victims fund for grants and contributions to create and enhance services for victims of crime. This government remains committed to holding offenders accountable for their actions and to assisting victims of crime.
Ensuring that offenders pay the victim surcharge as a way of demonstrating their accountability through contributions to victim services is one way to achieve this goal. It is a goal that is supported in Bill C-37 and which deserves the support of all members of this House.
I trust that all members agree that these reforms would further our collective goal of ensuring that the victim surcharge provisions finally reach their potential.
We have waited 25 years. Victims have waited 25 years. Let us not wait any longer. The time to hold offenders accountable is now. I hope we can count on the support of all members to ensure swift passage of this very important crime bill.