Madam Speaker, as the government has stated, Bill C-53 is an excellent example of both the government's continuing commitment to responsible criminal justice reform and a positive federal, provincial and territorial collaboration.
Our correctional system divides its responsibilities between two levels of government and among 13 separate provincial and territorial jurisdictions. While each level of government and each jurisdiction has its own unique challenges, there are many issues common to all of them which face all of them. Now more than ever it is important that we work in collaboration to share our expertise and experience in addressing these common problems.
It is no secret that all jurisdictions have been experiencing prison population growth in recent years. This population growth threatens to outstrip available resources. At the same time those very government resources have been declining. These pressures, if we do not seek effective solutions, will undermine any jurisdiction's ability to effectively treat, manage and return offenders to the community as law-abiding citizens. That, after all, is our shared goal.
From 1989-90 to 1994-95 the federal penitentiary population grew by 22 per cent. During this same time period, provincial prison populations grew on average by about 12 per cent. While this growth was occurring, the reported crime rate was actually declining. Why have we seen this increase in prison populations? In fact there are a number of reasons.
There are indications that at the provincial level more custodial sentences are being given by the courts and for longer periods of time. There has also been a significant growth in the number of charges for sexual and other forms of assault. At the federal level there have been fewer conditional releases granted and more revocations of those releases that are granted.
The net result is that Canada's incarceration rate is simply very high by world standards. In fact, among western countries it is one of the highest. The combined federal, provincial and territorial incarceration rate is 130 youth and adult offenders for 100,000 population. This places us far above European countries such as the Netherlands at 51 per 100,000, or Germany at 81 per 100,000.
Even among western democracies there are considerable differences in culture, values and social institutions which make it difficult to assume that direct adoption of the practices of other nations would be viable. Nevertheless when our incarceration rate is so dramatically higher than many of our European partners, it is incumbent on us to ask some tough questions as to why this might be so. Some believe for example that the criminal justice system today is too often used to deal with social problems that could be handled more effectively by other social services or programs or by greater collaboration among health and social program areas and the criminal justice system.
In particular we need to be sure that the criminal justice system is making the most effective use of community health and social resources in preparing offenders for returning to our communities as law-abiding citizens. All jurisdictions have traditionally considered community corrections to be a viable alternative to incarceration for low risk offenders.
Today community based programs are increasingly important as cost effective correctional alternatives that can be used to offset escalating institutional populations and costs. When an offender should be imprisoned because of the risk they pose to the public, that is where they should and will remain. This is not a question of dollars and cents; it becomes a question rather of public safety. Where that public safety can be achieved through controlled reintegration into the community, then that is the best way to ensure that scarce taxpayers' dollars are spent on incarcerating only those offenders who truly must be incarcerated or who truly need to be incarcerated.
Some community based measures which have been integral parts of correctional practice for years are being given more emphasis today. These include things such as bail verification and supervision programs, electronic monitoring, house arrest, fine option programs, victim-offender reconciliation programs, enhanced probation, and community based treatment programs. All of these programs have at their heart the diversion of low risk offenders out of the criminal justice system or to a lower degree of control within the system when it is safe and consistent with criminal justice objectives to do so.
Early intervention to divert offenders before a criminal behaviour pattern has been established is regarded by many as a sound method to avoid future criminal involvement and the associated costs to society.
Many such programs have been developed and tested on both an experimental and an ongoing basis. Recent consultations have revealed that there is a renewed interest in many jurisdictions and that there are many such programs being implemented or considered.
The reforms in Bill C-53 provide an excellent opportunity to build on this renewed interest. These improvements to the provincial temporary absence legislation will provide a sound and flexible framework for provinces and territories to provide community based management of offenders in appropriate cases. Offenders who are able to work can continue to do so while others can pursue treatment, educational, vocational or other programs in the community, all while subject to correctional control.
As I said at the outset, all jurisdictions are facing common problems with regard to escalating workload pressures in the criminal justice field. Solutions are being sought in diverse ways but with many common themes. Sharing knowledge about these efforts, working together to expand our knowledge about the problems and potential solutions, and engaging in collaborative efforts can maximize the results of each of our individual efforts and benefit all jurisdictions.