Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. It is a pleasure to be back.
I actually have very brief opening comments today, but I do appreciate the opportunity to appear before the committee to discuss Bill C-350. Today I am joined by Marie-France Kingsley, who is the director of investigations for the Office of the Correctional Investigator.
Though I will be brief in my remarks, I will raise some questions and concerns that we have noted regarding the application, scope and potential administration of Bill C-350, but I do want to declare my limitations at the outset. My office has no expertise in the prioritization of creditors or debt recovery mechanisms. I cannot speak to issues raised by this bill concerning jurisdictional matters or jurisdictional competence, and it is beyond my capacity to comment on matters of constitutionality, or even the compellability of forcing payments in the order of precedence contemplated by Bill C-350.
Hopefully, however, I can be of some assistance in bringing some insight into more practical matters that speak to the capacity and ability of a federal inmate to repay outstanding monetary debts, restitution orders, or victim fine surcharges and still meet their obligations to society while serving a sentence in a federal penitentiary.
As members know, Bill C-350 sets out priorities for debt repayment in cases when an offender is legally entitled to a monetary award. There are current mechanisms in place that allow Correctional Services Canada to register known restitutions and fines levied by the courts against federal offenders. Thousands of such registrations are currently on file. However, obligations arising from civil proceedings, creditors, and even spousal or child support payments, are not routinely noted in CSC's records. Bill C-350 would effectively require Correctional Services Canada to establish a tracking system to administer child or spousal support orders, as well as other debts owed as a result of an award by a court of competent jurisdiction.
It is not clear to me how such a registry would be created, or how much it would cost to implement or maintain. I do question whether we want or expect the federal correctional authority to be mandated to become part of a debt collection scheme. In fact, should it even be CSC's job to verify existing civil debts or other obligations, court orders, or settlements? What if a mistake is made? What if an appeal or variance is granted post warrant expiry? Who would be held accountable or liable? How would creditors register? In the case of debt repayment, is it up to CSC to decide what creditor gets paid first and in what order? One thing is certain, the cost and complexity of administering such a registry can be expected to be significant.
I understand that the need for this bill was based on a couple of high-profile cases. I appreciate that there may be a current impairment in recovering or garnishing monetary awards that may have been received by an offender under federal custody as a result of a legal action or proceeding by a federal court, tribunal, or agency. However, my experience suggests that the publicity surrounding such cases can be significant enough to likely alert any creditors. As we know, creditors usually act very quickly to intercept monetary awards before they can be disposed of by other means.
I am not certain that the creation of a complex and potentially expensive registry is the most efficient or effective way to deal with a few high-profile awards, much less meet court-ordered restitution arrangements, including child or spousal support obligations. In any event, the great majority of offenders in federal custody have very little money and limited capacity to earn while incarcerated. An elaborate recovery scheme is not likely to provide much satisfaction to victims as most debts will likely remain unpaid. Even the courts recognize these realities when imposing fines or making victim restitution orders or surcharges. This is an unfortunate reality, but perhaps also an opportunity to make substantive suggestions for reform.
Let me provide some context. I want to talk for a minute about the capacity of inmates to repay debts or meet ongoing family obligations while serving a federal sentence.
The maximum an offender can earn in a federal penitentiary while gainfully employed was set at $6.90 per day in 1981. It remains the same rate today, over 30 years later, and it has never been adjusted for the cost of living for inflation. Inmates in federal institutions are provided basic institutional clothing and personal hygiene products. Anything over and above that must be purchased by the inmate with their own money.
An established list of goods for purchase is available to the inmate population at a 10% profit margin. In 1981 when the rate of pay was established, a standard basket of canteen items could be purchased for $8.49. By 2005 that same basket of goods was estimated to cost $61.59, representing a 725% increase. Over the past three years, reductions in non-essential health care services previously provided by the Correctional Service has placed an additional burden requiring non-prescription items, such as Tylenol or medicated shampoo, to be purchased through the inmate canteen. For example, a 100 millilitre bottle of Buckley's cough syrup sells for $7.58 inside, more than one day's wages.
Other potential deductions from offender pay include institutional fines, inmate welfare committee funds, social events, and room and board. The top earners who receive overtime, incentive pay, or supplemental income, such as pension payments, are subject to pay for room and board while incarcerated. This amount is not to exceed $5 per day or $50 per every 14-day pay period.
In addition, all inmates must contribute to the inmate welfare fund. These expenses add up to $6 per 14-day pay period and cover things such as television and cable costs, as well as a variety of inmate welfare committee disbursements for organized activities for offenders, as well as inmate donations to charitable groups and legal fees for group actions.
My point here is simply to say that crime does not, in fact, pay. Prison rarely captures the affluent. Most offenders have no savings, and their earning capacity inside a federal institution is extremely limited. There seems little point in diverting earnings that, at best, will only minimally support release. It is not unusual for a released offender to be facing thousands of dollars of accumulated debt and only limited employment opportunities.
The issue that Bill C-350 addresses is an important one. Part of an offender's reintegration should include the satisfaction of debts to the best of their ability. My concern is that the suggested approach may prove both unworkable and counterproductive.
Thank you once again for the invitation to meet with you today. I look forward to your questions.