Mr. Speaker, I rise today at second reading of Bill C-68, an act in respect of criminal justice for young persons and to amend and repeal other acts. In more simple terms, this bill will replace the current legislation on young offenders.
We will recall that the bill was tabled for first reading on March 11. It is a product of the strategy to renew the justice system for young people introduced last May, nearly a year ago.
This strategy and the bill have already received a lot of comment in Canada, with the greatest opposition coming from those involved in Quebec in youth crime.
I will return a little later to the position of both the Government of Quebec and the organizations involved in managing the Young Offenders Act.
It is blatantly clear that, in making the Young Offenders Act more repressive as juvenile crime declines, the Minister of Justice has caved in to the Reform Party lobby.
Since the principles underlying this reform go back to the strategy of renewing the youth justice system, it might be interesting to know what the Minister of Justice thinks of the present Young Offenders Act.
With a straight face, the minister says that the legislation is lacking in clarity and contains a number of contradictory principles. In her view, the present legislation has three weaknesses: the first is that prevention programs and alternative measures are inadequate; the second is that violent young offenders are not being properly sentenced and rehabilitated; the third and final weakness is that there is too great an emphasis on custody for non-violent offenders.
Yet, between 1991 and 1997, this same legislation was responsible for a 23% drop in youth crime. Since 1995, the number of young people charged with violent crimes has gone down by 3.2%.
Interestingly, in 1997 the national crime rate for all age groups had dropped 5% according to the police. And that was the fifth year in a row that the crime rate had dropped, and the year with the lowest crime rate since 1980.
These are not imaginary statistics. These figures are from Statistics Canada's Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. They are not just a product of wishful thinking by the Bloc Quebecois. The facts are there, despite what the minister says, and the legislation she wants to reform has, nevertheless, proven itself.
Getting back to the drop in youth crime, it is noteworthy that this decrease also applies to violent crime, which also decreased in 1997 for the fifth consecutive year.
I could go on for some time giving statistics like these, but what is clear is that youth crime has been on the downturn for several years, thus confirming that the present legislation is fulfilling its objectives of protecting society and rehabilitating young offenders.
The former Minister of Justice and current Minister of Health, whom I have the pleasure of seeing before me right now, spoke out on a number of occasions on the present legislation, which the government wants to reform, describing it as fulfilling its objectives well. On June 2, 1994 for instance, in response to a question in the House, he declared that “the government continues to believe the youth justice system is fundamentally sound, and we support it”. I see he persists with that.
He has also said, in response to another question, that no one can imagine that society can resolve the problem of violent crime by reworking its legislation. In fact, the criminal justice system cannot put an end to violent crime all on its own. It merely addresses the consequences of underlying social problems. The House of Commons must devote at least equal time to preventing crime.
However, the bill introduced by the minister focuses more on the repression aspect than on rehabilitation. For example, the bill extends the list of offences subjecting an adolescent to an adult sentence.
The bill under consideration decrees that, at age 14, a young offender may be sentenced as an adult. That is two years sooner than under the current legislation.
In a number of instances, the bill provides that the identity of an adolescent found guilty of a criminal offence will no longer be kept secret.
This measure, specifically, raises a number of doubts. How could it not be seen that, with the increased media attention given crimes committed by young people, the publication of names might become a positive thing, particularly among the young involved in street gangs.
These are but a few examples of the more repressive measures in the bill. With the drop in crime among young people, this reform is totally unnecessary in our opinion. It is socially dangerous, because its negative effects could well yield the opposite of what we are seeking.
The current Young Offenders Act as applied by Quebec is an example for the rest of Canada, and the minister will surely not contradict me on this, having so acknowledged on a number of occasions. So why did she focus on repression in amending her law instead of taking the approach Quebec takes with the Young Offenders Act, which is to focus on rehabilitation?
We still do not have an answer. The only one I can think of, and I did not find it in my crystal ball, is that it was critical to silence the Reform lobby.
The legislation as it stands is serving its purpose very well in Quebec. The proof is that we have the lowest rate of youth crime in Canada.
Although youth crime is still a troubling phenomenon and is receiving increasing media attention, it is also on the decrease in Canada. In 1997, it dropped by 7%, thus contributing to the drop in the overall crime rate and confirming a trend observed since 1991.
Therefore, rather than rushing into a reform that will favour a repressive approach to youth crime, why was Quebec's model not used? It is no surprise that stakeholders in Quebec have reacted so strongly to Bill C-68.
In a March 11 press release, Quebec's Minister of Justice was critical of the fact that Quebec had not been consulted before the bill was tabled, despite the assurances given at the last meeting of justice ministers.
She said, and I quote:
In my opinion, it is unnecessary to change a system that is working and that already protects society very well, while helping rehabilitate young offenders.
On March 19, a coalition of Quebec agencies interested in the new Young Offenders Act had the following reaction at a press conference:
—the provinces' supposed flexibility in enforcing the legislation is no more than a series of limited powers dependent on the crown attorneys. Nowhere in this bill is it stated that the provinces may implement their own model.
For the benefit of those listening and for the minister's benefit as well, I will list the Quebec stakeholders that took part in this press conference.
I will begin with the Association des chefs de police et de pompiers du Québec. Clearly, the police do not all think alike. There was also the Commission des services juridiques, the Conseil permanent de la jeunesse, respected Université de Montréal criminologist Jean Trépanier, Aide communautaire juridique de Montréal, the Fondation québécoise pour les jeunes contravenants, Institut Philippe Pinel, the Conférénce de Régies régionales, the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse, the Bureau des substituts du procureur général du Québec, the Association des CLSCs et des CHSLD du Québec, Marc Leblanc of the École de psycho-éducation de l'Université de Montréal, the Regroupement des organismes de justice alternative du Québec, the Child Welfare League of Canada, and the Canadian Criminal Justice Association.
All professionals concerned with the rehabilitation of young people were present at this press conference, sending a very clear signal.
The consensus in Quebec on the issue of young offenders is clear.
This bill which is even more repressive cannot help but have an impact on the Quebec model. What will happen to our model if sentences have to harmonize coast to coast? Will Quebec judges be required to adjust their sentences to those being handed out by their colleagues in other provinces? If this is the case, one might wonder just how flexible this new act really is.
The Government of Ontario has already stated that it is very much in favour of tougher treatment for young offenders. That will not surprise anyone. That province can therefore be expected to opt for young people to be sent before adult courts more often, and is thus favouring prison sentences.
According to the Quebec Bar, “the real effects of these provisions could well increase both the number and seriousness of recidivism among young people”. This is why the Quebec model does not advocate incarceration.
The minister should also review the entire question of financial compensation to the provinces with respect to the application of the existing legislation. In fact, the latest budget provides $343 million more over three years for crime prevention, including $206 million for reforming the Young Offenders Act to permit the provinces to absorb the costs of applying the proposed legislation.
The Government of Quebec considers that the lengthening of sentences and the increased number of young people on trial in adult court will cost it an additional $23 million annually.
When the Young Offenders Act became law in 1984, the federal government paid 50% of the costs of applying the alternative and the legal measures. As is its custom, the federal government backed off a bit. In 1996-97, its share of the funding represented no more than 36%.
Further ineptitude. In addition to the government's backing off, its funding formula does not take into account the percentage of Quebec's population of young people. Although Quebec has nearly 25% of young people between the ages of 12 and 17, it receives only 18.28% of federal funding in this area. This is not the first time Quebec has not received its fair share.
Since 1989, therefore, Quebec has lost out on $77.4 million. Furthermore, the former Minister of Justice and the present Minister of Health promised to do something about this lack of funding, but this promise went up in smoke—at the same time as the former minister, apparently—because this promise was never kept by the former minister and the present minister seems not to have heard about it or is washing her hands of it.
Quebec is therefore still waiting for a specific proposal from the Minister of Justice concerning repayment of this $77 million shortfall. We do not know, however, how long Quebec's patience, on this issue as on many others, will be tested.
To sum up, the Bloc Quebecois is opposed to this bill because the consensus in Quebec with respect to young offenders is that the bill's measures are unnecessary, ill-advised and even threaten the continued existence of Quebec's rehabilitation-based model.
Ultimately, the federal government should hand over to Quebec full responsibility for administering the youth justice system along with the associated funding. This would be the best way of ensuring that a system that works for Quebec's youth, a system that gives them a chance to become full-fledged members of society, is allowed to continue.
It is distressing that the Minister of Justice has been unable to convince the rest of Canada of the effectiveness of Quebec's approach and that she has taken the path of least resistance.
For all these reasons, I move:
That the motion be amended by deleting all the words after the word “That” and substituting the following:
“Bill C-68, An Act in respect of criminal justice for young persons and to amend and repeal other Acts, be not now read a second time but that the Order be discharged, the Bill withdrawn and the subject-matter thereof referred to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.”