Mr. Speaker, it is with some regret that I rise to take part in the debate on Bill C-7. It has a lengthy history. As the Chair and members of parliament know, it has been before the House in various incarnations since 1993. In effect, Bill C-7 is an aptly named bill because it is seven years old.
It has had numerous changes. It has been put through committee. It has been examined and it has been adjudicated upon, to a degree, in the sense that we have had numerous judges, lawyers and prosecutors and those who work in the justice system look at it intensely.
It saddens me to say we have a bill before us that is in a very flawed and very troubled state. It is a bill that may be arguably the most important piece of legislation we will see in a decade. It is a bill that has long term, broad implications, because it deals with what is, I would certainly say, perhaps our most valuable commodity. I do not mean to diminish our youth by calling them a commodity, but the bill deals directly with young people in Canada. The bill deals with their future. It deals with the way in which they are dealt with by the criminal justice system.
One of the supposed assets of this type of legislation is its flexibility. The legislation was supposed to allow provinces to be flexible in the way in which they approached youth justice. They were supposed to be able to hold conferences. They were supposed to be more inclusive of victims, of social workers and of accused persons in the way in which they interact, in the way in which the justice system was to envelop them and hopefully improve and thus produce a better life.
Yet when one delves into the details, and the devil is in the details in this type of legislation, one finds, sorrowfully, that this legislation will have the complete opposite effect of what it is intended to do.
The philosophy and the emphasis in this legislation is very much on rehabilitation, on reintegration and on early intervention and prevention. To that end I very much agree with those sentiments. I agree with the direction in which the legislation is attempting to take us in terms of our criminal justice system.
Yet again it falls far short. The legislation will not achieve these noble objectives. It will not allow our young people to avail themselves of all of these noble ambitions, because it is a bill in which the Minister of Justice and her department have very much tried to please everyone. They have gone so far afield in trying to bring everything together in this one massive, complex, convoluted bill that none of these objectives will be achieved.
Therefore I stand here with great consternation, because the bill is one which we very much want and need in the country. Yet, as the Progressive Conservative justice critic representing my party in this process, I do not feel that I can in good conscience support the bill. I do not feel that the bill will achieve all those things that need to be achieved in our justice system today.
For example, the bill would give unspecified regions power to customize sentences and trends according to area standards, whatever that means. The bill would allow judges, who complained that the first version of this bill was too complicated and upon seeing it a second time were even more confused as to what the bill actually intended, various sentencing alternatives, which might vary by province, by city and by individual judge or court. For example, paragraph 38(2)(b) states that sentences must be similar to the sentences imposed in other regions “on similar young persons found guilty of the same offence committed in similar circumstances”.
Again, is this effective? Is this the type of language that leads to any real sense of clarity in terms of what is intended? The bill has left judges with much experience, with years and years of work in the justice system, scratching their heads as to how they would implement this type of legislation.
One of the greatest assets of any justice system is the ability to be timely, the ability to have justice done swiftly and to have it be seen to be done swiftly, as the old legal maxim goes. The legislation would make that virtually impossible because of this complexity and the new and convoluted route that cases would have to navigate. In regard to timely hearings, timely trials, a person having access to justice will surely find that it will take months, if not years to reach the end, to reach the conclusion of that process.
I know, Madam Speaker, that you have a history with the justice committee and have taken a great interest in the process as well. We are left feeling very shortchanged by the bill. After having heard from so many with so much expertise, understanding and history as to how the system works, we are left with a virtual nightmare in terms of the legislation.
It does not get to the point. It does not accomplish the goals that we should be striving to achieve. Justice delayed will be justice denied. That phrase will encompass and be stamped indelibly on the bill when it comes to fruition, if the government does not pull back at the last moment, which is unlikely.
For example, if young people were to find themselves charged with first degree murder in my home town of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, and were taken through the process, would they receive the same treatment, the same end result as they would in Vancouver?
That is a test that should be met. The purpose of our federal justice system is to have balance and parity. The very symbols of justice must be balanced. My genuine feeling is that it will not happen. There is a great deal of reason to believe, in looking at the various clauses in the bill, that a parity of justice will not exist. There is nothing to mandate that a young person who commits a deadly crime pays with serious time, regardless of the province in which it is committed.
There is an amendment, for example, to subclause 42(2)(o) that three years or less in a penitentiary would be served. In the mind of the public, a three year sentence coupled with probation, if it is to follow, does not adequately or proportionately respond to the gravity of the offence.
However many attempts were made to amend the legislation and however many sources came forward with innovative and intelligent suggestions on how to improve the bill, most of those attempts were rebuffed. There was little time in this round of parliament to delve into the details of the bill. For all intents and purposes time allocation or closure was invoked in committee just as it was in the House.
Again, because of the importance of the bill, members of the opposition, some members of the government side and perhaps some members of the committee were left feeling very frustrated because they were not allowed to call witnesses to go over some of the very flawed legislation. Some would argue, and I would be one, that there is so much wrong with the legislation that it is impossible to improve. It is like trying to polish a rotten apple; it cannot happen.
Supposedly this process is open to change in order to result in the best possible bill. Yet that did not happen. It was not effective. It was not functional. It broke down, perhaps was because of the personalities involved or perhaps because the government was not listening. That seems to be very much the case with not only the bill but with many pieces of legislation that we see in the House.
There is an attitude of superiority, that members of the opposition do not quite get it, that somehow they are out for purely partisan purposes and have a lesser understanding of the importance of the government's agenda. That is hogwash and simply not true. Many people in opposition approached the bill in a very professional, straightforward and common sense way. They were left feeling as if they got very short shrift. They were treated with very little respect.
Yesterday I attempted to move an amendment to the bill with respect to subclause 125(6). I did so at the request of the Canadian School Boards Association and other associated groups on behalf of teachers. It was meant to try to improve the information sharing regarding dangerous youth offenders who may be in our school system. The amendment would have provided for the sharing of information so that the provincial director, a youth worker, an attorney general, a peace officer or a person engaged in the justice system could share information mandatorily. They would have to do so, for the simple reason that information would be used for a very important purpose. It would protect other students and help in the rehabilitative efforts of the young person who is in the school system.
If the bill provides for that in some instances where it says may, my amendment would have made it mandatory so that it had to happen. There is a breakdown in the information sharing in the current system. It was very much in the interest of everyone to have this information mandatorily shared with our schools.
Others are trusted with the information. There are no privacy concerns when it comes to police officers, community workers or the staff involved in the court system. It is almost insulting to suggest somehow that if we were to give this information to teachers they would abuse it. One is left wondering why the government would vote against such a common sense amendment. Perhaps we will hear some response to that at some point, but I doubt it.
We have tried time and time again to improve upon the legislation. I worked with the old Young Offenders Act and there is no question in my mind that it was not a perfect system either. Although it was a great motivation in my decision to come to parliament, I am left with the inescapable conclusion that the old system will function better or was functioning better than the system we are about to embark on.
It troubles me greatly to think that simply by being here and participating in this system I will have to answer to some future generation as to how parliament could put in place such a convoluted and complex system, such a monster in terms of the delay it would wreak on the system. I will have to ponder as to how I would respond, but at least I will have some solace in knowing that I tried. I tried to make some changes. I tried to put forward some suggestions on how to improve the bill.
There is much talk again about the flexibility of holding these conferences in which the accused, victims and others will be able to participate in the system. Yet it seems to be left in a cloud of doubt and a shroud of complexity.
There is a question with respect to new responsibilities of the police in their actions. They are to engage in a new venture of counselling wherein they will be required to issue cautions. They will be required to delve into the young person's life in detail and to some extent be required to become like social workers. All the information when gathered, which is another very serious flaw in the bill, would not be admissible for the purposes of a bail hearing.
If a young person has been the beneficiary of several warnings and cautions, if the police are aware that he or she is likely to embark on more serious crimes such as break and enter, violence or drug use, and if the person is taken into custody, the police will not be required to refer to the information they had gathered through this new system for the purposes of holding or detaining the young person at a judicial interim release hearing or a bail hearing.
I brought this information to the attention of the justice minister and her officials, and yet there is no willingness to change. The Liberal government has also ignored numerous community concerns with respect to mandatory increased sentences for gang violence or swarming. There was no attempt to essentially up the ante for that type of violent behaviour. There was no attempt to have recognized in legislation a specific offence for home invasion when young people were aware or should have been aware that the person was at home when they entered the dwelling house.
That would have been the correct message to send if we were to make the legislation firmer and fairer in order to protect the public. Our justice system should be about protecting the public and keeping in mind rehabilitation and reintegration.
At the end of the day there has to be corrective action taken if young people or otherwise are wreaking havoc in a community. Sometimes it involves removing them from the community for lengthy periods of time given the offence that has been committed. The bill is not sending the signal that violent offenders and those who commit serious offences will be treated in a serious and firm but fair way.
I have already mentioned the delay involved in bringing forth the legislation, but another flaw that ties into my earlier comments is the lack of language referring to deterrence and denunciation, deterrence being either general or specific and denunciation for the crime itself. The bill is completely void of that type of language. It makes no mention of it, yet it is used in courtrooms across the country every day. The department and the minister in their wisdom are loath to use that type of language in the bill.
We have heard many complaints from numerous individuals across the country about the way in which the bill has been put together. I cannot stress enough the complexity of the bill. We had the Juvenile Delinquents Act which comprised 30 sections. From there we went to the Young Offenders Act which contained approximately 70 sections. Then we talked about the need to streamline and the need to make the legislation more user friendly so that parents and young people could understand it.
What did the department come up with? It came up with a bill that has 200 clauses. The legislation will be more than doubled. Yet the department and the minister have the audacity to say that it is streamlined legislation. It could not be more the antithesis of streamlined legislation. It is the complete opposite. The minister is being very economical with the truth when she uses that kind of language.
For example, subclause 45(2)is 86 words long in one sentence. That is the type of complexity we are talking about. It reads like Chinese arithmetic. It is something that will be extremely difficult for those working in the justice system to try to administer.
This leads me to another major flaw or chasm for the provinces. Due to the new complexity, new processes and new requirements for the administration of the bill, it will take massive resources to accomplish this task. The provinces are feeling extremely frustrated. Many who came before the justice committee stated in a very straightforward and polite way that they did not have the resources to accomplish the task given to them by the government.
In many ways that is exactly what is happening. The government is asking the provinces to administer the bill. Yet it is trying to micromanage the way in which they would do it. It is telling them they have these new responsibilities and new hearings to administer. The provinces will have all sorts of problems in trying to accomplish this task. Yet the government will not give them the additional resources they require.
Understandably the provinces are very upset but the government would not listen. It essentially says that is too bad and that it will go ahead with it any event. It thanked the provinces for voicing their concerns but informed them that they would have to do it. That is not exactly what I would call co-operative federalism. This is not the type of approach that should be taken, particularly on a bill as important as this one.
The minister has talked numerous times about a decrease in crime and how the statistics are plummeting. She should talk to the police, to case workers and to probation workers. They will tell her otherwise, particularly when it comes to violent crime. We know that violent crime is very much on the rise, particularly among young women. In the last 10 years it has risen over 77% as far as youth are concerned. Since 1988 it has risen 127% among young women. These are shocking statistics.
Public concern about lack of accountability for crimes, particularly those committed by young people, hinges on the fact that there does not appear to be much in the way of deterrents. We have new processes of statutory release, presumptive release, conditional release and conditional sentences. These are some of the same flawed practices that exist in the adult system. Now the government is downloading them on to the youth court system and telling the provinces to do their best. However it will not be there to help them when it comes to light that it will cost considerably more and result in more delay.
Frontline police officers are saying the same. They are very concerned about the new responsibilities. Victim groups are not satisfied that they will be given enough participation or recognition in the new system.
The new bill, although it is not new and has been recycled several times, is one that is fraught with grave financial implications and grave implications in terms of delay, complexity and breakdown in the system. The only people perhaps who will be happy will be the lawyers, particularly the defence lawyers. This will be the best make work program that the government could possibly have come up with. What will be accomplished?