Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on behalf of the federal New Democrat caucus on second reading of Bill C-27.
First, I would like to pay tribute to the very able justice critic, the member for Windsor—Tecumseh, who has given the NDP caucus incredible guidance, information and led the debate within the caucus on this bill as well as close to a dozen bills that have been thrown at the justice committee from the Conservative government. The member for Windsor—Tecumseh has earned respect from all sides of the House for his intelligence and wisdom and how he has approached these matters. I certainly speak today based on the wisdom and guidance that he has provided to the NDP caucus.
We are at a very interesting and critical juncture in this debate. Being the fourth party to speak, it has been clear to anyone watching the debate and if it was not clear to the government previously it would be clear to it now, that this bill is going down. Three parties are opposed to this bill at second reading, which as we know is a debate in principle. It looks like the bill will not go forward to committee. That is a very serious situation.
I listened, sometimes with a smile on my face, to the political rhetoric that has spewed forth time and time again from the government on this bill and many of the others. The government's mantra is that members who do not support these bills are soft on crime, that if they do not support Bill C-27, they are soft on crime; they are giving a free ride to criminals, they do not care about the public, they do not care about victims, they do not care about anything. We have heard it over and over again. Government members must dream about it and repeat in their sleep.
One of the members said we should look at reality. Let us look at reality. There are three opposition parties basically saying no to this bill because it is a very fundamentally flawed bill. The parties that have spoken thus far have given very strong both philosophical and intellectual reasons but also legal and practical reasons why this bill just does not cut it. That needs to be said.
We have heard from the Prime Minister that the opposition is delaying the crime bills. Bill C-22, the age of consent bill, was introduced in June but the government itself did not call it until yesterday. So much for the delay. The same goes for this bill. This is the first time we have had an opportunity to debate it.
Let us put aside all the political bunk and rhetoric and focus on the merits of this bill and whether or not it is a good, sound piece of legislation. Presumably that is what we come to this place to do, to represent our constituents, to represent sound public policy, public interest and to decide whether or not legislation that comes from the government is good. We make our judgment on that and decide whether the legislation should continue. That is what we are debating here today, not all the political rhetoric.
In terms of Bill C-27, as I said, the NDP caucus is opposed to it. I note that in the information put out by the justice minister's office we are told that this particular bill will make it easier for crown prosecutors to obtain dangerous offender designations. It goes on to point out that a cornerstone of the reforms in this bill is that an offender found guilty and convicted of a third designated violent or sexual offence must prove that he or she does not qualify as a dangerous offender. This is what is referred to as the reverse onus. This is one of the major reasons that certainly the NDP and other parties we have heard from today are opposed to this bill. Why is that so?
I would like to quote a very good article written by Paula Simons which appeared in the Edmonton Journal in October, as well as in the Regina Leader-Post, and maybe other publications. In that article the author pointed out:
It's a rule of law as old as the Magna Carta, a golden thread that runs through almost 800 years of British legal tradition. And it's enshrined in Section 11 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees that any person charged with an offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
I begin with this first argument and fundamental point because it is very much the underpinning of the concerns that we have about the bill. The bill brings forward a provision that will bring in reverse onus and will remove from the system the state's responsibility to bring forward evidence to show that someone is a dangerous offender. The onus will be put on the offender to show why he or she is not a dangerous offender.
I point out that in basically eliminating these hundreds of years of tradition, we did have sections in the Criminal Code that did have reverse onus clauses. This is something that was actually contained in our Criminal Code before the charter, but since 1982 when the charter came in, those provisions have been either struck down by the courts or voluntarily removed through successive Criminal Code reviews and amendments.
We really need to understand that within our judicial system we have had a long-standing practice of assuming someone's innocence until he or she is proven guilty and looking at each case on its merit. We are not talking about a cookie cutter system where one checks off a little box and it is either black or white, yes or no. We are dealing with individual offences. We are dealing with individual victims. The basis of our justice system is that we have the capacity and the ability to make judgments based on applying the law as it exists to determine each of those cases.
Bill C-27 will be a massive reversal of that very important democratic and just tradition within our judicial system. For that reason alone, we are opposed to the bill.
In the current environment in our judicial system, 85% of current dangerous offenders are still in custody. They do not get out. We are talking about longer than a life sentence if someone is convicted as a dangerous offender.
I would argue, and I know our justice critic, the member for Windsor—Tecumseh, would argue that there is no doubt the provisions and the system we have require improvements, but the basic provisions that are there actually are working. Basically completely eliminating that provision and bringing in the reverse onus we see as something that one, will be struck down and will be subject to a charter challenge, and two, will not necessarily improve the safety of Canadians. We have heard that today throughout the debate.
The second problem I can identify is that the bill crosses a boundary whereby it will allow a federal jurisdiction, the federal government, to move into a provincial jurisdiction and tell prosecutors, who are under provincial jurisdiction under the administration of the law, what they should be doing. This is very problematic and is likely to be challenged and struck down.
It makes one think why a bill would be brought forward when two of its basic tenets are things that are legally very open to challenge. As we have heard today, there have been many expert opinions that these particular provisions would be struck down.
There is of course an enormous amount of concern in Canadian society about crime, safety and making sure that people who are dangerous are not on our streets. These are very legitimate things. As New Democrats, we want to ensure that we have the best criminal justice system which ensures that when a dangerous offence has taken place, someone is convicted and the appropriate sentence is given.
It seems surprising to us that under this proposed bill, we would wait until someone had been convicted a second and third time before this kind of provision would apply. The most efficient, intelligent and practical thing to do would be to make sure that the system is working as early as possible, in terms of earlier intervention, by providing crown prosecutors with the resources they need to get the convictions they need, when they can see that there is information and evidence before them.
Right now if a prosecutor is of a mind that there may be information that leads him or her to believe that someone should be prosecuted as a dangerous offender, it is expensive and it takes time to do that. It takes a lot of resources to do the investigation. The reality is that in some instances, prosecutors may back away from that because they are simply overwhelmed by the system as it is and what they can deal with in terms of managing the cases that they have.
The point I am trying to make is that if we are truly interested in making sure that dangerous offenders are locked up and that the public and our communities are safe, then surely we would want to ensure that the system is responding in a way that the prosecutors can actually do their jobs.
Rather than waiting for the second or the third conviction and then placing the onus on the offender to show why he or she would not be a dangerous offender or a risk to society, why not give the prosecutors the tools and the resources to actually do the job they need to do, so that we do not even get into those other situations? We believe that would be a much better scenario, a much better set of rules under which to operate.
What kind of message are we sending out to the public with this bill? We have heard the rhetoric from the government that it is all about getting tough on crime, but actually what we are saying is that it is okay to wait for the second or third time. Do we want to give offenders that third time?
From our point of view, it is much better to have a system that provides the resources and the tools to make the system work as it should and to make sure that the prosecutors are actually able to deal with these cases, and where they can see that the dangerous offender designation is required through prosecution, that they are actually able to follow that up. That is a very important point.
A fourth argument I would like to raise is that if there were a seriousness about this bill and dealing with dangerous offenders, then we should be looking at what we can change that would actually improve the work that takes place. One example would be changes to the evidentiary burden on the prosecutors. Right now they have to line up three psychiatrists when they are trying to prove their case for a dangerous offender. Maybe we should be looking at that. Maybe we should be saying that only two psychiatrists are necessary in order for the prosecutor to bring forward the required expert information.
There are a number of things that could be done within the system to actually improve the resources of the prosecutors to do their jobs, but this is being completely overlooked by the government. Instead we have this very heavy-handed approach that has been brought in by the government where there is absolutely no confidence whatsoever from anybody in the justice system and the law profession that this law will actually be upheld.
In fact earlier I heard the member from the Bloc say that this is why they are afraid of the government. It was a very interesting remark. I think it echoes a sentiment in the public that we see the government loading in these crime bills and there seems to be very little thought to some of them.
The opposition parties have worked together very closely at the justice committee and have tried to convince the government why some of these bills are so seriously flawed. Yet the government does not seem willing to engage in that debate. Therefore, one is left with the conclusion that it is about political spin. It is about the politics of fear. It is about playing on people's fear about crime and safety, which people have, without really ever addressing it.
One of the fears Canadians have is that we are moving closer and closer to the U.S. style of justice system where it has the “three strikes and you're out” laws in effect. The evidence shows us that it has not worked. Again, from this very good article in the Edmonton Journal, it quotes from a 2004 report by the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. It cited FBI crime statistics that showed violent crime and homicide rates between 1993 and 2002 dropped faster in states without the three strikes law. This is very interesting and we should learn from the very real evidence available in the United States.
I know members of the Conservative government will argue that this is not exactly the same law, but it is based on the same kinds of principles and it is moving us closer and closer to the kind of system we see in the United States. We have heard its kind of mantra on getting tough on crime.
The report also compared California to New York. California has the toughest three strikes law. It sent people to jail for life even if their third crime was stealing a piece of pizza. New York has no such legislation, yet its overall crime index fell 50% from 1993 to 2002. California's overall crime index fell only 39%.
Despite the fall in crime rate between 1994 and 2004, in the 10 years experience of the California three strikes policy, its prison population rose by almost 23%. The Justice Policy Institute study estimated that building and staffing the extra prisons to house all those prisoners cost the state an extra $8 billion U.S. over 10 years.
I bring forward these points of information because they are very pertinent to this debate, not only in terms of this bill but also other bills that are before the House. As a Bloc member said, this is why we are so afraid of the government. It is embarking on a radical departure. It seems hell-bent on radical changes whether they are shown to work or not. This should be of very grave concern to all of us.
I totally reject the arguments, which will come forward now, that the NDP is soft on crime. Nothing could be further from the truth. We want to be intelligent about our response to crime and justice in our country. We want to ensure that there is sound public policy development. We want to ensure that we do not adopt legislation that has been shown not to work, that may create incredible havoc within the judicial system and that will undermine very fundamental principles established over many hundreds of years.
The government needs to take note. This is a minority Parliament. We have a majority of members in the House who say, with a united voice, that this is not good legislation and that it will be defeated. Therefore, the government members can squawk all they want about that. They can try to put out their political line that nobody on this side cares about crime, which we know is absolute nonsense, or they can get serious and engage in a real debate about what changes need to be made to the justice system. I have offered a few today, so have the other parties.
The Conservatives can choose if they so wish. If they are serious about putting public policy first and protecting the Canadian public, they can look at changes that will work within our judicial system. It is their decision. I do not know what they will decide, but they should take note of the fact that three parties now oppose the bill.