Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in this House for the first time since Parliament resumed, and I am also happy to see all my colleagues again after a very busy summer in my beautiful constituency of Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to take a few moments to congratulate you on your appointment to this new position, something I have not yet had the opportunity to do. I see that you already seem at ease in the chair and I feel that you are going to fulfill your mandate with serene professionalism. Good luck throughout your tenure.
This afternoon, I would like to talk about Bill C-37, which seeks to amend the provisions of the Criminal Code dealing with victim surcharges. A victim surcharge is an additional sanction imposed by a judge when an accused is found guilty of a criminal act.
These surcharges are collected and kept by the provincial and territorial governments in order to fund programs and services provided to victims in the province or territory in which the offence was committed. Among other things, the bill proposes to double the amount that offenders have to pay when they are sentenced and to make the surcharge mandatory for all offenders without exception.
Bill C-37 is presently at second reading, as the hon. member for Pierrefonds—Dollard and other hon. members before her rightly pointed out. If it is passed at this stage, it will be referred to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights for an in-depth study of each of its clauses. In a word, we are a long way from the final passage and implementation of the bill, which could be passed as is.
Today, I would like to state my position in favour of Bill C-37 at this stage of the legislative process, because I believe that the bill deserves serious and detailed study before it obtains royal assent and becomes part of the overall justice system.
A good number of hon. members before me have expressed the same desire to study the bill in depth in committee, because we are concerned about the lot of victims of crime across the country.
The NDP supports crime victims and their families and is in favour of better funding for programs and services that help those who have become victims of crime.
The Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime and a number of victims' organizations have already clearly stated that there is a huge need for more funding for victims' assistance programs. That is one of the reasons why the NDP is not prepared to dismiss this bill without even taking a look at it. We want to work with the other parties. If the Liberals decide to work with us, all the better. Otherwise, we are still opening the door to the Conservatives to develop a bill that will be able to satisfy the most people and address the specific needs of crime victims.
We want to ensure that everyone who works with crime victims has all the resources they need to provide the necessary services to victims. Although I support the spirit of Bill C-37, I still have a number of concerns. The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights must examine this bill carefully and answer our questions before members of Parliament give their approval.
As I mentioned earlier, this bill proposes to double the amount of the surcharges imposed on offenders. The surcharge would be raised to 30% of the amount of the fine determined by the judge during sentencing—up from 15%. If no fine is imposed on the offender, the amount would be $100 in the case of an offence punishable by summary conviction and $200 in the case of an offence punishable by indictment.
Although this is an interesting proposal, we must consider that this provision in Bill C-37, which would double the amount of the surcharge, could quickly become a problem for low-income offenders. I am not saying that these individuals should not pay their debt to society. On the contrary, I completely agree with the principle of holding offenders accountable and making them contribute to compensation for victims.
However, I think that one of the primary goals of our prison system is to rehabilitate prisoners who will eventually be released into society so that they no longer represent a threat to public safety. We cannot simply lock people up and make them pay some money to try to make them accountable for their crimes.
This is not what is going to help rehabilitate criminals. They need to be given favourable conditions to do so. That inmates can accumulate a debt of up to several thousands of dollars before even getting out of prison is perhaps not the best way to facilitate their rehabilitation.
As for offenders who would not be able to pay the surcharge, Bill C-37 still provides the possibility of taking part in a provincial or territorial fine option program in the provinces and territories where this type of program exists. The fine option program lets offenders pay their debt by earning credits for work done in the province or territory where the offence was committed.
The problem here is that this type of program does not exist in all provinces and territories. So not all offenders would have the opportunity to participate in a fine option program and take care of their debt through some form of work. What happens in that case? What solution would enable these individuals to take care of their debt? This question needs an adequate answer before we can even think about making Bill C-37 a proper bill that applies across Canada.
We also need to ensure that the money for victims of crime is put to good use in all provinces and territories where there is no fine option program. The victims who live in those areas of the country also deserve to receive services, and this government has a responsibility to ensure that they get their fair share.
Another aspect of Bill C-37 that deserves to be studied in depth by the committee is the substantial loss of judges' discretion to determine whether paying the victim surcharge would cause undue hardship for the offender. At the moment, judges are not required to automatically impose this type of surcharge on all offenders if the offenders are able to demonstrate that paying the fine would cause undue hardship to them or to their dependants, be they spouses or children.
If Bill C-37 is passed in its present form, courts will no longer be able to waive the victim surcharge in specific cases. However, judges will still retain the discretionary power to impose a higher victim surcharge if circumstances warrant and if the offender has the means to pay it.
I heard a number of Liberal members, and one in particular, suggesting that the NDP is in favour of restricting the autonomy of judges to impose a victim surcharge on offenders at the time of sentencing, as currently proposed under Bill C-37. Let me just say that it is simply not true. The NDP believes that restricting the autonomy of judges poses a problem and should be reconsidered. We have to have confidence in our judiciary, not tie the hands of our judges the way the Conservative government has done by imposing minimum sentences for certain crimes. The NDP firmly believes that the autonomy of judges is essential to the proper functioning of our justice system and that it should be maintained. We have to let courts do their job.
There are and always will be specific cases and judges must be free to treat each case in its own right. They need to have the freedom to impose the appropriate sentence based on the individual circumstances of each offender. I hope that I have been clear enough so that I will not have to answer the typical question from the hon. member for Winnipeg North as to where the NDP stands on restricting the power of judges.
As members can see from what I have said, Bill C-37 to change the Criminal Code provisions on victim surcharges does have some problems, and warrants further debate and consideration. The NDP supports the recommendations of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime and believes that more funding is needed to provide adequate services to victims of crime. There are a few problems with Bill C-37 and a thorough examination at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights is needed in order to come up with real solutions to those problems.
I believe that all members of all political stripes work in good faith. They come to the House with the best interests of Canadians at heart, and they work accordingly. This is the kind of attitude that will allow us to create a bill that is more equitable for everyone, that meets the needs of victims, that provides them with the programs and services they need, and that will make offenders more accountable.
It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that I will support Bill C-37 at second reading and vote to send it to committee. If it is not suitable after that, we can always change our minds.