Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak to Bill C-215, its essence being to add minimum sentencing for the use of a firearm in the commission of an offence.
First I want to explain why—I know, but few people seem to realize—legislated minimums are ineffective. In Canada, we have striking examples of this.
The most striking example is that of marijuana. When I passed the bar in 1966, I had never heard of marijuana. I heard about it when I started practising for the federal crown. The number of marijuana related charges had increased significantly. At the time, marijuana was not grown in Canada any that could be found here did not have any hallucinatory effect.
Marijuana arrived during what was called the flower power era, with the hippies and all that. It started becoming immensely popular at the end of the 1960s and during the 1970s. All this marijuana came from outside Canada. What was the sentence for importing marijuana into the country? It was seven years. Frankly, if the minimums had been effective I think they would have prevented much of this drug from entering Canada.
However, my experience as a criminal lawyer made me realize that almost no one who risked importing marijuana—most often, mules on behalf of others—knew that the penalty was a minimum of seven years' imprisonment. In fact, much of the time, people are not even aware that there is a minimum sentence.
Later, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the provision of a minimum sentence for importing marijuana. No marked increase in marijuana use, which had peaked, ensued. This level remains unchanged today.
The second very clear example demonstrating that minimum sentences are not effective is the death penalty. Since Canada abolished the death penalty, murder convictions have continued to drop. In fact, the murder rate has continued to decline. Once again, this clearly shows that the deterrent effect of very harsh sentences has almost no impact on the offence rate.
There is a third example. This is an increasingly rare offence. In fact, the legislation has not really been amended to make the penalties harsher, but rather there have been changes in terms of enforcement and, above all, public awareness campaigns. I am talking about impaired driving.
There were minimum sentences, and there still are. They are the same, that is 15 days in jail, I believe, for a second offence, and three months for a repeat offence. We have, however, seen a considerable decrease in the number of offences.
I remember when the police started using roadblocks and roadside testing. The success rate was about 10%, that is, 10% of the people stopped were driving impaired. Today the figure is barely 1%. Today there are fewer people driving impaired, as a result of this sampling and all kinds of other measures, such as more severe sentences, stricter enforcement of the law and the use of roadblocks, but above all changing attitudes.
This is not surprising, when we know that, in the end, dissuasion and dissuasive penalties generally have limited results.
Those who are calling for harsher penalties really believe that, if the risk is greater, people will likely think twice before committing a crime. Anyone who has a bit of insight into criminal nature will realize that this has relatively little impact. Evidence and experience from the past can teach us some things.
For example, I remember a case in which a British Columbia appeal judge referred to the fact that there was a time when England hanged pickpockets. At the hangings, the fascinated spectators would be robbed by other pickpockets.
In addition, if the imposition of stiffer sentences and greater use of incarceration did indeed reduce crime, one would expect the country with the highest number of incarcerations would have a lower crime rate. According to the latest available statistics, which are from 2001, Canada imprisons 101 persons for every 100,000 inhabitants, and the United States, 689 persons for every 100,000 inhabitants, or nearly 7 times as many.
Do we really think the crime rate is lower in the United States than it is in Canada? In fact, general criminality is comparable. The net increase in the United States is in homicides, where an individual's chances of being a victim are three and a half times greater than in Canada. And yet, some states still retain the death sentence.
In addition, there is the fact that people are poorly informed about what goes on in the courts and give it only passing thought. When people judge criminals in order to have them sentenced, they realize it is much more complex than they thought.
Another example is the rate of crime and incarceration in France of 70 persons per 100,000 and therefore lower than in Canada. In France, however, juries determine the sentence in addition to guilt, while in Canada they determine guilt only, and judges subsequently impose a sentence.
When we consider individual cases, we realize that the problem of sentencing is much more complex than it first appears, and so we think that harsher sentences will lower the crime rate.
There is, however, one measure that makes a difference and that is gun control. Long before the legislation was introduced by Allan Rock, the former justice minister, we controlled guns, especially pistols, in use in Canada.
Canada's crime rate is three and a half times lower than that of the United States. They say this will not prevent the real criminals from getting hold of weapons. Perhaps, but people who commit crimes using a gun, people who kill, are not necessarily hardened criminals. There are all sorts of reasons why they are driven to commit a crime, including anger or jealousy.
According to the statistics, there are eight times as many women shot by their spouses in the United States as in Canada.
It must also be acknowledged that a minimum sentence means, necessarily, accepting that there will be some injustices. There will be cases where the judge will be convinced that the minimum sentence is too severe, but will have to impose it. Setting minimums indicates a lack of confidence in our judges. I know that some of the public share that view.
Generally, we have limited information about what goes on in our courtrooms. I can remember reading some newspaper articles on sentencing that I found enlightening. The author compared the number of reasons given by judges to justify sentencing to the number reported in the press.
Judges would give 7 to 12 different reasons to justify a sentence. However, the papers would report only two or three and generally the most sensational.
Nonetheless, if some sentences handed down by judges seem unreasonable, which is possible in a country as vast as ours, these sentences can be appealed in a court of appeal. In my opinion, to convince us that a minimum is important, a case should not be heard in first instance. Cases should be limited to those before the court of appeal.
Furthermore, this legislation borders on the ridiculous because it adds 15 years to life imprisonment for certain crimes. The author did not seem to know that the minimum sentence for murder is life imprisonment. He wanted to add 15 years to the life sentence if murder is committed with a firearm. The difference in the various sentences handed down according to type of murder lies in the length of time before being eligible for parole.
It seems the author of this legislation never heard of that. It is as ridiculous as in the United States, where they hand down sentences of 200 years in prison, or three life sentences, and so forth. Here we would have that same anomaly, life in prison plus 15 years.