Madam Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion of the hon. member for Langley--Abbotsford on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of Justice.
We on this side of the House are unequivocal in our support for any feasible measure that will effectively protect our children, indeed all of our citizens, from sexual predators. At the same time, however, I would urge all members to exercise caution and not jump at any measure that promises a quick fix, that claims to be a cure-all for this most pressing problem. I fear that a temptation in the specific area of sex offender registries is to leap first and look later. That appears to have happened all too often in some jurisdictions that have gone before us.
In fact this morning in the justice committee the hon. member for Prince Albert commented that often we are too quick to pass laws, to push a button that makes us feel good, but we are weak in evaluating and monitoring. Now the opposition wishes to charge forward on this issue. It seems to pick whatever process best suits its political purposes. What hypocrisy.
For example, over the last decade, the number of registries of sex offenders has jumped from a few isolated ones to registries in the 50 American states, in the United Kingdom, in Scotland, Ireland and even recently in Canada, in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia.
Given the implementation of these registries, one might easily assume that these registries stop sex offenders in their tracks. With all of these registries by now, one might assume there are all kinds of studies that empirically support such claims. Imagine my surprise when I found out that not one single study has been published that empirically concludes that sex offender registries reduce reoffending rates. Imagine my surprise when I found out that in many jurisdictions quite the opposite has happened.
For example, in the majority of states in America that have implemented a sex offender registry, anyone, even those of us sitting at home in Canada, can log on to the Internet and see pictures and addresses of every known sex offender living in that state. In many cases their pictures will be available like that for the rest of their lives. Has that active publication of personal information reduced sex crimes? Apparently not.
Here in Canada where sex offender registries have yet to have any impact on available data, the incidence of violent sexual offences per capita has been steadily dropping over the past few years. This is not the case however in most U.S. jurisdictions that publish the names of sex offenders over the Internet. At the same time these states have all experienced atrocious acts of vigilantism against these offenders. While some may say “Very good, they deserve it”, I and the government could never condone any such system that invited retaliation.
The question is, why would anyone pass a sex offender registry law that to date seems to have had so little positive effect? All too often these policies are drafted in haste, in a crisis situation born of desperation. All too often we have seen an isolated tragedy involving a sex offender and a child which causes an immediate legislative call to arms. In their haste, as has often been the case in this highly emotional issue, legislators fail to understand all the consequences of their emotionally drafted bills.
In almost every single case where a legislative body has passed a sex offender registry bill, the same scenario was played out: a painful and highly publicized case of kidnapping and murder of a child, followed by community outrage, calls for action and passionate speeches calling for new and better tools to combat this problem. Were the resulting registries always the best tools for the job? Was careful analysis of sex offender traits and trends used to model and shape a policy designed to reduce reoffending? Were legislators solely dedicated to finding the right policies? Or were there other factors at play, factors such as revenge, blame and politics?
How well did the resulting registries work? Did sex offenders all stop offending? The data suggests otherwise. For example, in one of the most comprehensive recidivist studies ever undertaken, a recent study by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives looked at over 45,000 historical sex offenders in the United States and concluded that 87% of these convicted offenders do not commit another sex offence after release. This rate is substantially better than that observed for other forms of property and violent crimes. Yet sex offender registries typically target 100% of convicted offenders regardless of their determined threat or likelihood of recidivism based on a personal profile. In most cases all of these offenders are required to register for the rest of their lives.
Instead of focusing its efforts on, for example, the 13% who are likely to reoffend, police forces in the states that have sex offender registries must spend their resources on monitoring 100% of all convicted sex offenders, over 200,000 of them to date in the United States, regardless of their likelihood of reoffending. Most criminology experts argue that the registry concept is incredibly inefficient.
Many of the American registries are facing a new threat from their state and federal supreme courts where rights based challenges against lifelong mandatory registration requirements are starting to proceed through the appeals process. The news is not great. Many states, including Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, have had their respective registries struck down in whole or in part as a result of clashes with state constitutional rights, few of which are as stringent as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Certainly there are lessons to be learned from these experiences.
When the United Kingdom drafted its sex offender registry and forced Ray Whiting to register for his sex offence related murder of Jason Swift, how did it happen that after his statutory release for that crime he managed to rape and murder yet another victim, young Sarah Payne? Why did the local police admit that the U.K. sex offender registry, as it existed, was of little use in monitoring the offender, or in preventing the subsequent crime, or in treating the offender, or in investigating and apprehending that offender?
Why did subsequent inquiries conclude that toughening the existing sex offender registry would have had little impact in preventing cases like the Sarah Payne tragedy? Why was it that most experts concluded that Whiting's failure to receive therapy and assistance in integrating into the community was the chief factor that caused this tragedy? Why did the U.K. government introduce in the following year a new sex offender registry law?
What then do we make of sex offender registries? Are they perfect? Certainly not. Are we intent on repeating these types of mistakes? Hopefully not. Can we learn from the experience of others? I sincerely hope so.
The motion before us today is an example of the desire to sprint ahead without having examined all the pitfalls that may lay ahead. The implication of this motion is that the government is doing nothing while our children remain in danger. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I would like to note the solicitor general's efforts to date on this matter. The solicitor general rose in the House last March and stated emphatically that he supported the motion by the member for Langley--Abbotsford, as did all members present, because this nation already possessed one of the most technologically advanced criminal registries in the world, the Canadian Police Information Centre. We know it as CPIC. Further, he told the House that his department would begin evaluating potential improvements to CPIC in the specific areas of sex offences, citing the criticism that CPIC was not address searchable by police officers.
In a very short period of time he fulfilled that commitment when he announced on September 11 last year that a new database within the CPIC system was to be created: the sex offender category. Further, he announced that the database would be address searchable and would be up and running within a year, funded completely by the federal government.
That is not all the government has done in recent years to combat the dangers of sexual predators. In 1997 we proclaimed Bill C-55 which strengthened the dangerous offender rules in part XXIV of the criminal code and also created a new sentencing provision called long term offender.
As a result of these changes, prosecutors in almost every province are aggressively pursuing dangerous offender and long term offender designations. In fact, since 1997 the number of successful dangerous offender applications has doubled each year.
The 1997 legislative package also created a new category called the long term offender. It targeted individuals who were clearly a threat but who would not meet the threshold as a dangerous offender. This new designation recognized that released sex offenders who received supervision and treatment in the community experienced dramatically lower recidivist rates than offenders who were released at warrant expiry without conditions for supervision or treatment.
In addition to their custodial period, long term offenders can be sentenced to up to 10 years of community supervision and conditions following the termination of their custodial period. This innovative measure has already resulted in over 100 successful long term offender applications.
The government also recognized that there were new emerging areas of sex crimes that needed to be targeted specifically. In 1997 and later in 1999, parliament passed important measures to protect children from being drawn into the sex trade. A new offence of aggravated procuring was created, with a minimum five year sentence, to deal with those who use violence against a child and force that child into prostitution related activity. Special protections were instituted to make it easier for children to testify in court against pimps.
Bill C-15A, which is now before the House, contains new provisions that would make it an offence to lure minors over the Internet for the purpose of committing a sexual offence. However, none of these initiatives happened overnight.
While I agree with my colleagues that this is an urgent problem, cobbling together a mandatory sex offender registry without looking at all the issues, all the details and all the facts will not result in good legislation.
Instead, the solicitor general has taken a different approach. He has asked his officials to work with all the provinces and territories to fully explore the issue, to determine what is and what is not feasible in the Canadian context, to determine what works and what does not, and to find out where some jurisdictions have succeeded and where others have failed. I fully support this approach and this side of the House fully supports this approach. It is obvious to me that the provinces also support this approach. Why else would they be participating fully in the federal-provincial-territorial working group on high risk offenders currently seized with this matter?
Canadians must abide by many rules, many laws and many conventions that are uniquely Canadian. The division of powers between federal and provincial governments is quite different from that found in, for example, the United States or the conventions and laws of the unitary styled United Kingdom. We have a constitution, including a charter of rights, that is unique and, while similar, is different from the American bill of rights. Any proposed national sex offender registry can only be successful if it is designed and drafted within this unique Canadian context.
It is for those specific reasons that there are high level discussions taking place among the federal, provincial and territorial officials on what kind of registry system would be workable in the very unique Canadian context. From the issue of charter and privacy challenges, to how information could be transferred from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and from computer system to computer system, to whether non-compliance should be a criminal code offence, there are many choices and the solicitor general is looking for a consensus among our partners before proceeding further.
That approach makes sense. If we are going to have a registry, we should have one that works, that is efficient and affordable, that will recognize the impact of the charter of rights and freedoms, that is not in breach of federal or provincial privacy laws, that local police agencies will have the ability and resources to administer, one for which all provinces and territories from coast to coast to coast can agree on a consistent approach, and one that will not drive convicted sex offenders underground with changed identities and no hope of rehabilitation.
In closing, I must decline to support the motion, not because I do not wish to protect our children from sex offenders, because I do, but because I insist that my government does more than just pretend to protect our children from sex offenders. I will not support any measure that is not properly understood, not completely explored and does not receive full scrutiny at every level.
No measure within the criminal justice system exists in a vacuum, sex offender registries included. The task of preventing recidivism by sex offenders needs an effective, multi-faceted approach, from investigation to capture, from charge to prosecution, from sentence to release and, finally, from community supervision and treatment to rehabilitation.
A sex offender registry, in whatever form it ultimately may take, is just one piece of this very big puzzle. It will be no panacea, but if we do it right and do it carefully maybe it can work. If we are careful it will not be a strain on police resources, it will not drive violent sexual predators underground and it will not bring a flood of charter challenges.
I urge my colleagues on all sides of the House to give our federal-provincial-territorial officials a chance to do their work, to reach a consensus and to evaluate the options. At that time we will be in a much better position to know where we should be headed, what legislation to support and how best to make our children safe.
Let us take the necessary time to study the issue carefully and positively. Let is take the necessary measures to enact effective strategies that will protect our children and indeed to protect all Canadians.