Mr. Speaker, I am not going to say that I am pleased to rise this afternoon to discuss Bill C-229, but rather that I am surprised to rise in this Parliament to be discussing a bill that has been brought forward from the last Parliament.
It is unexpected to see what was clearly a political showpiece, introduced by the Conservative government just before the last election as Bill C-53, reintroduced into the House. It shoots some holes in one of the arguments I used to make, having been the NDP public safety critic for the last five years, that these bills tended to come from the PMO. Clearly, this time they cannot come from the PMO. They are coming from some other place and the former PMO.
It is also surprising, because this tough on crime agenda that the member for Calgary Signal Hill introduced, endorsed the tough on crime agenda idea. This is an agenda that has been rejected by many jurisdictions in North America that have gone down this path. It was rejected by many U.S. states, including the State of Texas, which was probably the poster child for tough on crime agendas. It realized that these kinds of bills do not work.
The former U.S. attorney general, Eric Holder said:
statistics have shown -- and all of us have seen -- that high incarceration rates and longer-than-necessary prison terms have not played a significant role in materially improving public safety, reducing crime, or strengthening communities.
I am also surprised because I thought it was pretty clear that this tough on crime agenda was rejected by Canadian voters at the last election.
As I said, as the NDP public safety critic in the last Parliament, I had the task of opposing the raft of so-called tough on crime bills that made up an agenda for the last government. I am surprised to see the member for Calgary Signal Hill donning this cloak of tough on crime as if it helps to promote his bill, which it does not. However, it does clearly situate the bill among that sea of bills that the Conservatives introduced that had common characteristics.
These characteristics are that they had a certain popular appeal because they were directed at horrible crimes, or at deservedly unpopular criminals, a common characteristic that gave a false impression of how our criminal justice system actually works. In fact, they are bills that were largely unnecessary. They have a common characteristic in that they are singularly ineffective at improving public safety. Finally, they often had the common characteristic of claiming to serve the interests of victims. As someone who taught criminal justice for 20 years and worked a lot with victims and victims' families, I know that what victims' families say they want is for no one to go through what they have gone through ever in the future.
The last characteristic that almost all of these tough on crime bills have in common is that they are almost certainly unconstitutional. Cases are now working their way through the judicial system that will invalidate most, if not all, of these bills adopted in the previous Parliament from the tough on crime agenda. There were harsher sentences, mandatory minimum sentences, barriers to parole, or even in the most baffling case, the retitling of pardons as record suspensions and increasing the barriers to getting a pardon for those who had been rehabilitated and were trying to reintegrate into society. They increased the barriers to getting a pardon, which would allow them to get a good job, return to the community, and support their families. This whole sea of laws are now in the process of being struck down.
I know that the Minister of Justice has launched a review of the entire Criminal Code, which will also address all of these tough on crime bills that resulted either from private member's bills or from the government's omnibus crime bills.
What we saw recently, in April, was that the Supreme Court of Canada struck down two portions of the tough on crime agenda. It struck down mandatory minimums of one year for drug offences, and struck down the provisions that take away the right of those who serve time before being convicted and sentenced to get additional credit for that time served. It was just 10 days later that the B.C. Court of Appeal also overturned mandatory two-year minimum sentences for drug trafficking for those under the age of 18 or in places frequented by youth.
I will turn now to the actual provisions in Bill C-229, which are really life without parole for murder when associated with certain other offences or which involve certain victims, or murders which are carried out with special brutality, or high treason.
The very title of the bill, life means life, is false. It really distorts what goes on in our criminal justice system. Those with life sentences, even if they are released from the institutions, which most are not, remain under supervision for the rest of their lives and remain under restrictions even if they are paroled. A life sentence in Canada does mean a life sentence under supervision.
As I said, with those who are convicted of first degree murder, we heard talk about families having to go through the application for parole again and again, but they do not start that process for 25 years. Those convicted of first degree murder most often have a 25-year period before the parole thing kicks in. At minimum, they are going to have a 10-year period. That is a bit of a distortion of what actually happens to families in the cases of these most serious crimes, but not in the cases of some minor crimes, I will concede.
There is an irony also in the bill in its content. The Conservatives were very intent on removing what used to be called the faint hope clause, former section 745.6 of the Criminal Code, which allowed those convicted of the most serious crimes who had received a life sentence with no eligibility for parole for more than 15 years to request a hearing to allow them to have a parole hearing. That was seen as very effective by those who work in the corrections system.
The Conservatives in 2012, through a bill from the Senate, Bill S-6, repealed that faint hope clause, yet it comes back in this private member's bill as after 35 years, admittedly longer, but it does restore a version of that faint hope clause. I find that ironic.
If it should every be passed, I believe that the courts will find the bill unconstitutional on two grounds. One, it would be arbitrary in that what is the penal purpose? What purpose is served by the bill? I submit that there is no penal purpose being served by the bill, because as I said, those who commit these most serious crimes are almost never released. Two, it would probably be declared unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment.
I know the member for St. Albert—Edmonton said he believes it is constitutional, but we can cite a very large number of legal scholars, Isabel Grant from UBC being one, and Debra Parkes from the University of Manitoba as another who would differ quite strongly with him. Of course, so does the trend of the recent Supreme Court decisions and the B.C. Court of Appeal decision, and a year before, the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal, which I forgot to mention, which overturned aspects of mandatory minimum sentences involving firearms.
The real impact of the bill would be to ensure that those convicted of these admittedly terrible crimes serve longer times in institutions, but we know from what happened in the United States that this has no impact on public safety, and note that in Canada we now have a murder rate which is at its lowest since 1966.
What it would do is create a management problem in our prisons. Those who think they are never going to get out have no incentive to engage in rehabilitation programs and they have no incentive toward good behaviour. I am going to quote what Don Head, the commissioner for Correctional Service of Canada said on this:
As the proposed legislation would lengthen the incarceration period for some offenders, it's possible that it can reduce incentives to rehabilitation and good behaviour, potentially compromising institutional security as well as the safety of my staff and other inmates.
We have to be very careful about creating a situation which would endanger the safety of our correctional staff who already work in situations of great stress and also that of other inmates.
In conclusion, of course, I will not be supporting this private member's bill. Instead, I would like to see the House deal with provisions that would provide greater opportunities for rehabilitation, an addiction treatment in prisons, greater access to pardons, and all those kinds of things that might help us avoid these kinds of crimes in the future.