Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to Bill C-9, an act to amend the Criminal Code (conditional sentence of imprisonment).
This is a very important topic. I want to come out right at the beginning of my remarks and say that I am a supporter of conditional sentencing. I think it has been an important addition to the remedies and the possibilities that are available in our criminal justice system.
Conditional sentencing was introduced in Canada in 1996. It was an innovation then and I think it has been an important part of our criminal justice system since then. It allows for sentences to be served in the community under certain conditions, rather than in prison, so it diverts people from the prison experience. The other options for punishment in our criminal justice system include fines, probation and ultimately imprisonment, but conditional sentencing was a new possibility that was an important addition to this system.
It was developed as part of an overall approach to sentencing, so it did not come out of the blue and it was not stimulated by an urge to be more lenient or to go easy on people. It was an attempt to broaden the range of sentencing possibilities available to judges in the system.
It was also an attempt to find appropriate options for expressing society's concern that laws be upheld, that appropriate punishment be meted out when laws are broken and that rehabilitation be a true possibility. These other options were necessary. We saw the failures of suspended sentences, of mere probation, of incarceration and the serious failure of incarceration to change behaviour and produce real rehabilitation. This came out of that concern to increase the possibilities and options.
Right now, about 13% of custodial sentences in Canada are conditional sentences. In my understanding, that makes it about 5,000 sentences per year. Always, as we heard the previous speaker say, the seriousness of the crime is taken into consideration, as is the responsibility of the offender for that offence. I want to read again for members the criteria that are part of the legislative basis for conditional sentencing.
There are four main criteria. One is that the offence for which the person has been convicted must not be punishable by a minimum term of imprisonment. So where there is a mandatory minimum sentence, conditional sentencing does not apply, and those are already the crimes that our society recognizes as the most serious crimes that can be perpetrated.
The second of the criteria is that the sentencing judge must have determined that the offence should be subject to a term of imprisonment of less than two years. So even though the possibility of the maximum sentence can be very serious, it applies only to those situations where the judge has made a determination that the sentence would be less than two years.
Third, the sentencing judge must be satisfied that serving the sentence in the community would not endanger the safety of the community. Safety is a key component of sentencing and the use of conditional sentencing.
Fourth, the sentencing judge must be satisfied that the conditional sentence would be consistent with the fundamental purposes and principles of sentencing as set out in the Criminal Code, and those include quite a number of important ideas. The sentencing is to address the denunciation of unlawful conduct. It is to address the deterrence of the offender and others from committing offences; there is an example made. It is to address the separation of the offender from the community where necessary so the safety and protection of the community is paramount. Also, the rehabilitation of the offender is to be taken into consideration. The provision of reparation to victims or the community is another factor, as is the promotion of a sense or responsibility in the offender.
With this kind of criteria, it seems to me that by maintaining the relationship between the offender and the community those criteria are often best served. We cannot hide the offender away and pretend that none of these things happened. We cannot hide the offender away and pretend that there are not relationships that were broken and need to be restored. Conditional sentencing, under those kinds of criteria, is a crucial part of our criminal justice system.
Originally, I think, the intention was to divert more minor offences away from the prison system. Sometimes that is hard to understand when we have been victims of a crime, when we are involved in it so intimately and we see people not getting a jail sentence because of a crime they have committed.
There is concern around violent crimes and crimes involving serious injury, but I believe the current bill goes way beyond addressing that kind of concern in eliminating the possibility of a conditional sentence for any crime that is punishable by 10 years or more. By putting in that kind of criteria, I think we go away from addressing the concerns that have been raised in society.
We also know, and very clearly, that incarceration does not necessarily solve crime or lead to successful rehabilitation. The previous speaker used the term “schools for crime” in his remarks. Our prison system is often seen that way, as a great place for criminals to learn techniques, or a great way to expand one's criminal network while incarcerated.
We also know that incarceration leads to a higher incidence of reoffending. That is a statistic that has been proven time and time again. We also have a great example that incarceration does not work. We just have to look south of the border. The United States has a very high rate of incarceration that really has not affected the crime rate in the United States. So we know that incarceration does not work and that other options are vital to the system.
I also believe that judges should have some discretion. The judge is in the most appropriate and best place to judge the specific circumstances of the offender. Often we see sensational cases in the media and we see a sentence that just does not seem to make sense at first blush. Upon examination of some of the details as we look at the substantive and important considerations that went into the delivery of a conditional sentence, this is often seen in a very different and much more positive light.
Removing the option of conditional sentencing will have serious consequences on other sentences. I think it will lead to more suspended sentences, whereby judges who are looking for options will refuse to sentence someone to incarceration and will suspend the sentence instead. A suspended sentence does not have the kinds of conditions that are involved in a conditional sentence. There are no conditions in a suspended sentence.
I also think it could lead to shorter sentences generally. In that case, the shorter sentences of less than two years will put increased pressure on the provincial prison infrastructure. I think that new prisons will be necessary at the provincial level since the legislation that we are talking about applies only to sentences of under two years. There is a huge expense involved with this.
We know that it takes $125 a day to keep someone in a provincial jail. That is just over $50,000 a year. It is even more expensive in the federal system. That estimate varies from province to province, but that is an average. Let us say that 5,000 people per year are getting conditional sentences now, and let us say for the sake of argument that 1,000 of them go in some other direction. If 4,000 new jail terms are imposed, that could easily cost another $200 million to $250 million a year, not even counting the capital costs. That is just the cost of maintaining people in prison. As for building new prisons on top of those dollars, we have not had any allocation or any estimate of what it would cost the system to do that.
I think there is a serious question of the increased costs for the correctional system. We have not even dealt with the increased number of mandatory minimum sentences that the government is proposing under Bill C-10, which will have the same effect in the federal prison system. We are talking about huge increases in costs. I would much prefer that this kind of money go to attacking the root causes of crime, that it go to attacking poverty, attacking drug addictions, dealing with the alienation that people feel from Canadian society, and supporting families. I think that is where this money needs to be sent.
I see conditional sentencing as part of the whole movement around restorative justice. I think that keeping someone in the community, where the person and the community can take responsibility for re-establishing the relationship and for reparations and rehabilitation, is really important.
In my own community, the Burnaby Restorative Action Group on justice is working hard to establish a restorative justice program in my city, but it is meeting roadblocks every step of the way. The funding is not there to support that kind of important work. This is a community that wants to take responsibility for the crimes committed in that community. It wants to help people understand the impact of their crimes and be rehabilitated for those crimes. We need to support these kinds of initiatives like restorative justice and conditional sentencing. We need to maintain that kind of discretion in the system.
Those are my thoughts on conditional sentencing.