Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-22, an act to amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which was introduced a couple months ago and proposes some important reforms to reduce the over-incarceration of indigenous peoples, Black Canadians and members of marginalized communities.
As we all know, a fair and effective criminal justice system is critical to ensuring that Canadians feel safe in their communities, have confidence in the justice system, and have trust that offenders are being held accountable in a manner that is equitable, transparent, and promotes public safety in Canada. The unfortunate reality is that far too many people face discrimination and systemic racism in all stages of our criminal justice system. For example, indigenous adults represent 5% of the general population, but 30% of federally incarcerated inmates. Black Canadians represent 3% of the Canadian population, but 7% of federal offenders.
This is a clear problem that has been exacerbated by “tough on crime” sentencing policies, including the indiscriminate and broad use of mandatory minimum penalties of imprisonment, or MMPs, as well as added restrictions placed on the availability of conditional sentencing orders, or CSOs. MMPs run counter to the fundamental principle of sentencing, namely that sentences must be individually tailored to the particular circumstances of the offence and the degree of the responsibility of the offender before the court. An excessive use of MMPs implies that we do not have trust in the judiciary to hand out sentences that fit the acts of the crime.
Rather than giving that to the judge, who would have heard all of the evidence that had been tested in court between the prosecution and the defence, it assumes that Ottawa knows best. It assumes that parliamentarians should institute blanket penalties regardless of the facts.
This one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing denies the reality that offences can be committed in a broad range of circumstances with varying degrees of seriousness. For example, someone who steals to feed their family is arguably less blameworthy than someone who steals goods to sell on the black market. This one-size-fits-all sentencing has too often used the latter example as a baseline for sentencing laws, and this has created problems in our justice system. This is one of the reasons MMPs are often found to constitute cruel and unusual punishment and are thus found to be unconstitutional for violating section 12 of the charter.
There are other reasons we should only utilize MMPs in the narrowest of situations. Number one is that they do not make our communities safer. The weight of evidence shows that minimum sentences do not deter crime, reduce rates of reoffending or make our communities any safer. Rather, it has been shown that they increase recidivism.
Number two is that they have a massive cost to society. The average cost of incarceration per person is over $125,000 a year. Number three is that unfair sentences are more likely to be appealed up to the highest court of the land, and this puts a strain on DOJ resources, gums up our court system and impacts the timely administration of justice.
This is an issue because the evidence shows that trials now take longer. Between 1996 and 2018, the time from first appearance to decision increased 228% for firearms offences and 60% for drug offences, and charter challenges to MMPs now represent 47% of all constitutional challenges to federal criminal laws. Over the last 10 years, 69% of charter challenges related to drug offences with mandatory minimum penalties have been successful, and it is the same for 49% of firearms MMPs.
The last minister of justice for the Conservative party claimed he was going to put away “the worst of the worst” during the tough on crime mandate of the Harper years, but the outcome has simply been a massive increase of unjust sentences forced on offenders, which the Supreme Court continues to deem unconstitutional.
Bill C-22 represents an important step forward, providing alternatives to incarceration where appropriate, including for indigenous and Black Canadians. One important component of the proposed reforms is a series of amendments to the conditional sentencing regime that would allow the regime to fulfill its original purpose, namely to address the overreliance on incarceration for less serious crimes. A CSO allows an offender who does not pose a threat to public safety to serve a prison term of less than two years in the community under strict conditions, including house arrest and curfew.
The law governing CSOs provides judges with the ability to impose a broad range of conditions that balance public safety with other important objectives such as rehabilitation. For example, a judge can require an offender to attend an approved treatment program, which can help address the underlying reasons that led to offending in the first place.
Evidence shows that allowing offenders who do not pose a risk to public safety to serve their sentences in the community under strict conditions, while maintaining access to employment, community and health-related support systems, is more effective at reducing future criminality than harsh penalties such as incarceration. In certain circumstances, it can provide the environment for offenders to take responsibility for the harm they caused to the victim by their actions, as well as take responsibility for their actions through restorative justice.
I have had the opportunity to see the excellent work that the North Shore Restorative Justice Society and the Restorative Justice Program of the Sunshine Coast have done in this regard. This is well known to be a powerful way of not only reducing recidivism, but also helping communities heal.
Having established why MMPs are problematic, it is worth highlighting that they are particularly so in drug cases. This is top of mind in my province of British Columbia, where more people have been killed by the opioid epidemic since the pandemic reached our shores than have passed away from COVID-19. Rather than treat substance use and addiction as a moral issue, we need to continue to take steps to treat it as a health issue, so that we can get help to those individuals who are suffering.
Bill C-22 would require police to consider other measures for simple possession of drugs, such as diversion to addiction treatment programs rather than laying charges and necessitating incarceration. In doing so, we would diminish the danger associated with substance abuse by no longer forcing individuals to use drugs in secrecy out of fear of punishment and incarceration. It would prevent a vicious cycle where Canadians incarcerated as a result of drug charges become more likely to recommit the same crime and use again. Instead, pursuing alternatives to incarceration would allow real healing to take place, which is necessary if we are to combat the opioid crisis, which has particularly wreaked tragedy in the privacy of people's homes.
That takes me to my next point. In 2020, the majority of fatal drug overdoses took place in privacy and solitude. By contrast, zero deaths have occurred at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites in B.C. because of medical interventions from staff. When simple drug use no longer needs to be concealed out of fear of criminal prosecution, government programs that provide for safer supply are possible, and we create the space for treatment to rehabilitate those suffering from addiction. This method has shown success in communities across my riding, and they have overwhelming community support.
In Sechelt, the Sunshine Coast’s first sanctioned safe consumption site was established last July. There, trained staff provide support, which includes access to naloxone, counselling, overdose response and education, drug checking, and detox treatment options. A couple months ago, an overdose prevention site opened in Squamish. This new site is dedicated to the memory of the late Squamish resident Sarah Jane Thompson, a vocal advocate for harm reduction who tragically died of drug toxicity during a relapse in November.
To sum up, this legislation makes some important improvements to our criminal justice system. It gets rid of unfair laws, which do nothing to make our communities safer, but which pose a massive cost on the public, impact our institutions, and disproportionately impact indigenous and Black Canadians and other marginalized communities. In its place, we will create real opportunities for individuals to get the help they need, while allowing for rehabilitation and reintegration of our communities and create safer communities as a result.
I urge all members to support this important bill.