Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I am, as you say, Rod Snow. I work as a lawyer in Whitehorse in the Yukon, but I appear today as an individual and not on behalf of any client or organization.
Let me start with full disclosure. I'm not an expert. I'm not an expert in criminal law and I'm not an expert on FASD, but over the last 10 years I have taken part in the national conversation on the treatment of individuals with FASD in the criminal justice system. Today I want to tell you about some of what I've learned and about how you can make a difference, I think, in the lives of individuals with FASD.
At the risk of repeating some of what you may have heard already, let me start with some of the key facts that have framed elements of this national conversation. First, FASD is a permanent organic brain injury. There is no cure, although outcomes can improve with treatment. Second, characteristics of individuals with FASD include impaired executive functioning, lack of impulse control, and difficulties understanding the consequences of their actions, so they often don't learn from their mistakes. Third, criminal law assumes that individuals make informed choices, that they decide to commit crimes, and that they learn from their own behaviour and the behaviour of others. Fourth, these assumptions are often not valid for individuals with FASD, so our criminal justice system fails them and it fails us.
So what do we do?
I start from the proposition that nobody is more morally innocent than a baby born with a disability. When that baby grows up and is unable to meet a legal standard of behaviour because of his or her disability, the state does not deliver justice by punishing, yet that is what we do in Canada.
The tools that Parliament has given crown counsel and judges are limited. If you speak to people who are working on the front lines, you will hear the same story over and over again. It goes something like this. They will tell you that too often children with FASD start out in the child welfare system. They proceed into the youth criminal justice system as teenagers, and then move into the adult criminal justice system, where the cycle starts all over again. They know that jail time will not rehabilitate, deter, or cure the individual with FASD, but they have few tools to stop this revolving door. Eventually everyone gets out, but the time in jail has done little to help the individual or to improve public safety. This is where you come in, as members of Parliament. We need you to support changes to the Criminal Code and our corrections system so that they are smart and effective on crime.
We know that the old approach is not working. We need a new one that's designed to succeed. I think it was Einstein who said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. There's a broad consensus that law reform is needed. In 2010, with the support of crown prosecutors and defence lawyers, the Canadian Bar Association supported initiatives in this area by federal, provincial, and territorial justice ministers and called for measures to decriminalize FASD. Then justice minister Nicholson quickly said FASD is a huge problem in the justice system—“huge problem”, his words, not mine.
Provincial court judges support the bar association's call for reform. FPT justice ministers committed to dealing with FASD as an issue of access to justice, and in August of 2013 Justice Minister MacKay made a public commitment to act on this issue. So I was excited when Ryan Leef introduced Bill C-583.
Bill C-583 has three main elements. First, it defines FASD. Second, it allows a judge to order an assessment, and third, it allows FASD to be considered a mitigating factor in sentencing. All three elements are important, but I want to draw your attention to the section that allows a judge to presume that the cause of FASD is maternal consumption of alcohol if there is good reason why that evidence is not otherwise available. We want to avoid situations where everyone knows that FASD is involved, but an assessment remains inconclusive because this evidence is missing.
I don't have to tell you, Mr. Chair, that Bill C-583 received support from all parties. I sat on the Yukon legislature when Yukon MLAs unanimously passed an NDP opposition motion to support Bill C-583, and I understand that MP Casey has introduced Bill C-656 that adopts much of Bill C-583 and goes further in the areas of external support orders and corrections reform.
I was disappointed when Bill C-583 was withdrawn. Many of us thought that, with support from all parties, it had a chance. Now we turn to you and your committee, because we feel that it's the best hope for reform. I urge you to listen, and listen carefully. Please consider action that can be taken to prevent FASD, to encourage assessments, and to improve outcomes for those in the federal penitentiary system.
I also encourage you to hear from people with this disability and their families. People with disabilities have often said, “There should be nothing about us without us.” When you report, please do not confuse the need for more medical research or scientific study with the value of Bill C-583. Do not say that this is a complex, intractable issue, and therefore, Bill C-583 or its equivalents need more study before action. It needs more political courage and leadership.
I think Ryan Leef has done his part, with limited resources. It is now time for Minister MacKay, with the resources of the Department of Justice at his disposal, to honour his 2013 commitment to act.
When you report, say that the criminal law needs to be reformed and that Bill C-583 is a good start. Please say that unequivocally and unanimously. Do not sacrifice the good in the pursuit of the perfect. If you back Bill C-583, you'll make a positive difference in the lives of individuals with FASD.
Parliamentary leadership matters. By doing so, you will encourage further action in our communities, provinces, and territories, and that, too, is good.
Thank you very much.