Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak to Bill C-37, another Conservative bill that shows just how out of touch the Conservatives are with reality when it comes to crime and justice.
The bill changes the rules concerning victim surcharges, which are the fees that are imposed on a person who is sentenced for a crime. This proposal doubles the amount of the fine and removes the discretion of a judge not to impose the fine if it would cause undue hardship. That is the prerogative of the judge. I will explain why this is a flawed idea and why I will be voting against this legislation at second reading.
There is no dispute that victims of crime need support and assistance. Often the victims of crime are not just the people we think of as being the ones involved in the incident. Their families and communities can also be affected tremendously by crime, especially in areas such as hate and bias crimes.
Support for victims, their families and the community must take multiple forms. Financial support alone does not heal. There must be services. Government must take an active role in providing those services through providing grants, public-private partnerships, and many other forms other than simply imposing a fine.
We oppose this increase to the victim surcharge because it ignores the reality of those who are being placed in prison, who are primarily the poor, racial minorities and aboriginal people. Those who steal for subsistence certainly do not have the money to pay such a fine, and the removal of a judge's discretion based on the ability of the offender to pay the fine is untenable. It does not take an expert to see the problem. Even Conservative Senator Hugh Segal said this:
Less than 10 per cent of Canadians live beneath the poverty line but almost 100 per cent of our prison inmates come from that 10 per cent. There is no political ideology, on the right or left, that would make the case that people living in poverty belong in jail.
This is precisely what the bill would do. Those who are living in poverty and commit a crime would be forced to stay in jail longer because of their inability to pay the fine. While the government is content to say they can work it off through a provincial program, the government fails to understand that not every province has equivalent programs. We would be creating further disparities depending on the province in which the offender lived.
Nobody in the Liberal Party is suggesting that criminals should not be held accountable for their actions. What we are saying is that it is the role of the judges to decide how criminals should be sentenced for their crimes. Judges should be trusted to do that. An independent judiciary is at the core of a democracy. To tamper with the independence of the judiciary, whether it is to impose decisions on judges or set mandatory minimums means that the government does not accept an independent judiciary.
The government seems to be convinced that locking away more people in jail is the solution to both poverty and crime. It is not surprising, however, because it also sees prison as the answer to mental health and homelessness.
The point is that not only are we continuing this vicious cycle of poverty and disadvantage rather than addressing it, but the whole model is flawed.
Let us look at the victim. Remember that the fine is supposed to be collected when someone is found guilty, but what about those instances when, for various reasons, a person is not found guilty or the case is thrown out because the police did not follow the right procedure? All of those things occur. What happens when the victim does not want to press charges, as in the case of rape, because the victim does not want to face the accused or does not want to go to court? Will the government step up to the bar, pardon the pun, and actually do something for the victim? If there is no fine imposed or if there is no one to pay the fine, what happens? This is not helping the victim at all. All these points give rise to situations where there is a victim of crime but no victim surcharge is being imposed.
What about the family of someone who is attacked by a stranger who was never caught? Should we not ensure that family is funded and has available services to help with the healing process? The mandatory imposition of a fine is laughable. At the same time, the government speaks of hate crimes being a victimless crime and therefore, no one needs assistance because there was no victim.
The point is that we must trust our judges to impose a fine where it is warranted. The language of the existing provision in the Criminal Code should be changed if it is inadequate, but judges should not be stripped of their discretion, doubling the fine and providing no way for some offenders to work it off.
As I said earlier, the provinces are not equal in their ability to meet the provisions that have been placed in the bill. For instance, in British Columbia a $100 surcharge would help, but in the north and in rural areas where more money is needed to sustain programs for victims, that $100 may not be enough.
The government is actually shirking its role. It does not want to play a role in helping the victims of crime. It wants to lay it all on the shoulders of the “offender” who may or may not be found.
The point is that the very arbitrariness of the increase is the flaw. A 100% surcharge gets something different in every province as victims do not all have the same needs. We need a consistent level of support for victims. The government cannot shirk that responsibility.
How was the fine calculated? It is not based on evidence. It is arbitrary. We could be back here to increase it in two years and again in five years as time moves along. Committed direct funding from the government is a way to help victims deal with the effects of crime. This dithering by the federal government does not cut it.
I want to speak about the aboriginal people who tend to be over-represented in our prison systems. Aboriginal people make up 17% of our prison population but only 2.7% of the Canadian population. In fact, some people say that aboriginal people make up 30% of the prison population. However, the Conservative government is not talking about aboriginal justice here. Where is its plan to assist aboriginal offenders? Where is its plan to combat the cycle of homelessness, poverty, lack of education, unemployment and discrimination? Where is its plan for culturally sensitive sentencing, or will the government continue with a one-size-fits-all approach like Bill C-37?
The government does not seem to care at all about a person's inability to pay or circumstances that drive someone to commit a crime. It does not seem to want to talk about the prevention of crime. It does not seem to want to talk about the rehabilitation of offenders and helping them integrate back into society. None of that is here. It is just about punishment, having offenders pay fines and not even allowing them to work it off if they cannot afford to pay the fines.
Where is the youth criminal justice strategy in here? We do not see any. What about the soccer fields and after-school programs that would prevent young people from getting into crime? Why are we treating youngsters like hardened criminals and locking them up in jail where they will only learn how to become better criminals with no hope of joining society again?
Crime is a complex puzzle. No one disputes that victims of crime need support and assistance, but this one-size-fits-all focus on punishment is not effective. It is flawed.
Taking away the judges' discretion is flawed. Interfering with the independent judiciary is non-democratic. In fact, the Conservative member for Kootenay—Columbia is saying that if offenders do not want to pay the victim surcharge, they should not commit crimes. That is a fairly simple way of dealing with things, assuming that criminals go on Google every day to find out what the Criminal Code says the sentence would be if they commit a crime. If punishment were a deterrent for crime, the jails in the United States would be empty, but they are not. People do not check and see what the Criminal Code says before they commit a crime. This is a misunderstanding that drives an ideology of mandatory minimums and throwing people in jail. As I said, it is as if the government thinks that criminals spend their time searching on Google to see what the Criminal Code has to say.
Deterrence is not achieved by this surcharge, nor does it help the victims. It is not achieved through mandatory minimums. True deterrence, although the Conservatives would never admit it, is about giving people options and providing them with the ability to start living reasonable lives, to get out of poverty, to get an education and to be rehabilitated.
The Liberals will not be supporting the bill.