Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on this important bill now before the House, which pertains to amendments to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.
As Conservatives, we have long held that there was need for reform in this area. The legal community, the justice community, members of the victims advocacy groups, police officers and Canadians generally have for years been expressing great concern, in particular, about the early release of offenders, the conditions which apply to those offenders who have been released into the community and the speed in many cases to which statutory release is granted.
The key word here is the word “statutory”. That is to say that individuals often convicted of violent offences, offences involving sexual assault, home invasion, brutal beatings are put back on the street regardless of their behaviour while incarcerated, and essentially have the judge's initial decision at trial abrogated. That is to say the sentence received at trial is cast aside and in many cases an arbitrary decision is based on time served, and the person is then released into the community.
The bill is one which in my view goes some distance toward addressing some of the concerns around early release. It touches upon such things as expanding the category of offenders who are ineligible for accelerated parole review and therefore increasing the period of ineligibility for accelerated day parole. In other words, the system is prevented from fast-tracking or speeding up the release of offenders.
It also requires the review of cases of every offender entitled to statutory release for the purposes of determining whether to impose additional conditions. This is important, and it touches upon another area of law where I believe there is need for reform; that is the conditions which can currently be put in place by a presiding judge or subsequent to that, a parole officer or individuals within the corrections service department.
In particular I am talking about protecting youth and children from sexual predators. I have put forward a private member's bill which would allow for a judge to bar the presence of a sexual offender, a convicted individual, from being in a dwelling house with a child when not accompanied by another adult.
The current provisions as they stand in the Criminal Code allow for the prohibition of an individual, a sexual offender, from attending a school yard, or a playground, or a place where children frequent. Sadly, it is a well known and well documented fact that the place in which sexual offences most frequently occur is in a dwelling house. Very often, equally tragic, the perpetrator is a person known to the child.
The amendment that I have put forward would allow for the judge to impose a prohibition on being in a dwelling house with a child unless there was another adult present. The inspiration came from a constituent of mine in Nova Scotia who brought this shortcoming, this anomaly in the Criminal Code to my attention some years ago.
Finally, Bill C-19 in its current form would also provide for the automatic suspension of the parole or statutory release of offenders who had received a custodial sentence with a requirement that the National Parole Board then review the case within a prescribed period of time.
In essence, the bill increases the scrutiny and the ability of our parole system to intervene at the appropriate time to review all the cases on their merit and on the facts. I believe there are still some shortcomings that I will touch upon in my remarks as they pertain to victims. I must commend individuals like Steve Sullivan, who works with the victims resource centre, for his diligence in monitoring and bringing forward information and amendments to bills such a Bill C-19.
This legislation is a response to another document, a long overdue response I would add, known as a work in progress, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. That report from the subcommittee in May 2000 was the product of a great deal of work and effort by members of the subcommittee and others.
Similarly, I have to point out that there were 53 recommendations for enhancing public safety, assisting victims of crime and improving and reducing the administrative complexities of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.
In October of 2000 the Solicitor General at that time issued a report calling the subcommittee's report:
A welcome addition to the information, research and knowledge currently available regarding corrections and conditional release in Canada.
The Solicitor General recognized that that report:
--echoes the submissions and testimony of offenders, victims of crime, members of the bar, offender assisting agencies, police, Crown attorneys, academics and countless others...
Needless to say, the report was something that encompassed a broad, sweeping consultation of those on the ground working in the system. I would suggest again that this is the most subjective type of information that could be received from those with the working knowledge.
It took almost three years to get to the point where significant pressures brought to bear by members of the official opposition and others calling upon the Solicitor General's department, now defunct and rolled into the Public Security and Emergency Preparedness department, to meet the commitment and recommendations put forward in that earlier report.
In May 2002 the official opposition introduced a motion in the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights requesting the appearance of the Solicitor General, Commissioner of Corrections Service, the Correctional Investigator and National Parole representatives to provide a status report on what if anything had been done in response. It called upon them to give an accounting as to where they were regarding these recommendations.
The information appeared to go into the nether land and we never really heard back, except to say that there was a letter which one week before the scheduled meeting of the parliamentary secretary to the solicitor general seemed to indicate that they were prepared to respond. I would suggest that because of those pressures we now have legislation before the House.
The Conservative Party and members of the opposition have, for a long time, been calling upon the government to bring about sentencing reform. In particular another shortcoming deals specifically with the use of conditional sentences. Conditional sentences, just for a point of reference, allow for the judge to mete out a punishment that does not require incarceration, but is given in lieu of incarceration, and very often involves stringent requirements obviously aimed at curtailing the mobility of an individual. It is tantamount to home arrest. It is subject to recall and putting a person in jail if they were to breach those conditions, such as things as non-association, abstinence from drugs and alcohol and reporting conditions.
However, the difficulty is the liberal use of these conditional sentences, in particular with sex offenders and those with a propensity toward violence. My suggestion is that there should be an enumerated list in the Criminal Code that prevents a sentencing judge from meting out or using conditional sentences for crimes of violence. That would do away with some of the public confidence that has been lost over the misuse of conditional sentences, the occasional atrocities that occur when individuals with often numerous convictions are granted conditional sentences and the inappropriate use of conditional sentences, which we have seen from time to time.
In particular there was one case in Montreal which involved a multiple rape of a young woman by offenders, two at least, where the judge imposed a conditional sentence. These sentences are intended, obviously, as a last, last resort, but are not appropriate for certain crimes that are enumerated in the Criminal Code.
There are also other issues pertaining to the rights of prisoners versus the rights of victims. It has always troubled me deeply that we have a correctional investigator in the country, with a budget, who is there, rightly, to ensure that prisoners do receive basic amenities, rights and information that should be made available to them. Yet there is not a similar office for victims. There is not a victim's ombudsman's office, for example, with a commensurate budget that would represent parity in the system in terms of the rights of victims versus those of the individual.
We have taken enormous strides toward helping victims in the last number of years and I would be the first to acknowledge that, but I would suggest there is a severe anomaly when we have an investigator's office for the purposes of aiding prisoners and no such similar office for victims.
I would suggest that Bill C-19 is certainly a step in the right direction. It did come about as a result of intense pressure from the opposition and from those stakeholder groups that are most interested and affected by these changes.
The legislation has moved through Parliament over an extended period of time because of the prorogation and early election calls by the Liberal government, but it is a compilation of many submissions and testimonies of those who are best enabled and best able to assess the current justice system.
The former solicitor general did praise those involved in the production of both the report and the legislation. Similarly, I would add my voice in praise of those efforts and also the efforts of those who work at the committee at the staffing level. They are tremendously helpful in compiling the information, the often very complex and overlapping legislation and information submissions, in bringing the legislation forward.