Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to participate in the debate.
During the election campaign in January the issue of crime was prevalent in my riding, as I suspect it was in many ridings across the country. I look forward to supporting measures that might have some impact on reducing crime. I waited with some interest for the bill to come forward but I was a little disappointed, and I will explain why.
While we are debating this legislation today, the debate is more profound than that. We are debating how the country deals with fellow citizens, what happens to fellow citizens and how people should be convicted of an offence.
We are all concerned about crime in our communities and it is certainly the case in Dartmouth--Cole Harbour. I have met with individuals who have been affected by crime, some serious, perhaps some less serious, but each criminal act has an impact on our communities, causing people to feel vulnerable and unsafe. I want to do something to help people feel safer in their communities.
As an MP who has been called upon to vote on Bill C-10, I have had the responsibility to ensure I support any legislation that is reasonable, effective, rooted in fact and evidence, and consistent with Canadian values. The bill, unfortunately, does not pass that standard. The legislation is not rooted in good law and not substantiated by evidence.
The Minister of Public Safety was quoted recently on the subject of minimum sentences as saying:
We also believe there will be a deterring effect from getting serious about serious crime.
I read an article by Dan Gardner who has written extensively on crime. He wrote:
Naturally, [the Minister of Public Safety] didn't cite any research in support of his conclusion. He didn't need to. The government “believes.” And as every man of faith knows, belief can conquer even the mightiest army of facts.
But for those of us in the reality-based community--the famously dismissive phrase of a Bush official--belief isn't good enough. We expect policy to be supported by facts and research. Perhaps that makes us lesser men and women, but we can't accept something as true simply because it's been given [the Prime Minister's] benediction. So where's the evidence that the government's radical, U.S.-style approach to criminal justice will make us safer? You won't find it on its website. There are lots of bold claims, of course. But in the press release and background information, there isn't a word about evidence.
It is clear that the Conservatives continue to serve up good politics under the guise of good public policy. This is not good public policy. The legislation would not address the real issues of crime, much of which is rooted in systemic poverty. Rather, the result would be a boon for those in the business of constructing prisons.
The American experience, which the government tends to look to for guidance, tells us a different story.
As an example, New York was the first state to limit the discretion of judges in sentencing. Lengthy sentences were required, 15 years to life, even for some non-violent, first-time offenders, many of whom would have received brief sentences, along with drug treatments and community service prior to those sentences.
Then, of course, there is the California “three strikes and you're out” law.
Not surprisingly, these mandatory sentences resulted in the increased number of Americans who went to prison and the cost of building and maintaining prisons.
By 1999, 6.3 million adults were under correctional supervision. By some estimates, the American government spent close to $40 billion on incarceration and, by the mid-1990s, California and New York were spending more on prisons than on higher education.
Some would suggest that anybody who disagrees with them on this is soft on crime. This is not the case. It simplifies an issue that is complex. I think the vast majority of crime is rooted in our inability to help those who most need to find dignity, those most in need, the poor.
We have not done enough to eradicate poverty in Canada. We all bear that responsibility. We have not done enough to ensure that all Canadians have the basic chance to succeed in life, especially for young kids from low income families. We need to do a better job of providing the means to have a decent and healthy breakfast and the opportunity to learn and not sit in a classroom hungry.
We need to ensure that those who cannot afford higher education obtain the means to do so they have the hope of an education which might lead to employment.
It is easy to introduce tough legislation, as the government would suggest. It is easy to throw people in prisons and when they run out of space to build new ones. However, if we are serious about building our communities and we care about our individual citizens, then we should stop creating policies that benefit the rich and hurt the poor. If we are concerned about communities, we should not provide tax breaks to those who need it the least, while penalizing the poor.
Let us not forget Mike Harris who, while cutting welfare and taxes, allowed the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer.
If the government really cared about our communities it would not cut programs and child care, which we need, that attempt to build and help families while ensuring that children receive quality and accessible child care.
I believe the legislation speaks to the sort of John Wayne approach to the world: macho and seemingly tough but does not address the real issues of crime.
We can never excuse crime but we can explain why people find themselves in trouble. We need to address crime prevention with real policies and continue to address the outcome of behaviour and not the substance of issues that create crime.
I believe it is the responsibility of the government to put bills before us that are evidence based and will enhance the effectiveness of our criminal justice regime.
I know some members opposite do have a grudging respect for the charter, some may not, but many do. However, our charter is meant to protect individuals from the state and we need to ensure that any law we pass meets that constitutional test and that what we do here as legislators passes the proportionality test, meaning that we address and redress problems in a measured way.
Amendments to the code should not be ideologically driven. I believe, unfortunately, in this case that is the case. The bill before us today goes much further than the existing mandatory minimum sentences in the Criminal Code. Historically, mandatory minimums have been used with restraint. I note from a recent survey of judges, I think in 2005, indicated that over half of them felt that mandatory minimum sentences would hinder their ability to impose a just sentence.
Mandatory minimums on a widened scale undermine the fundamental principle of proportionality. The chief sentencing principles enshrined in the Criminal Code allow judges to set a sentence proportionate to the gravity of the offence. In some cases mandatory minimums may actually lead to fewer convictions and fewer penalties. The all or nothing approach could lead to charges being stayed or even withdrawn when they should go forward.
The people in my riding are concerned about crime and want to ensure that people who offend are punished. They understand that violence and crime affects us all and they understand that the solutions are complex. They understand that justice must be firm and fair, that we address issues like poverty and underemployment where people have little, but also take meaningful ways to make their communities safer.
I know and understand the devastating effect crime has on victims. I have seen it often in my community. I would vote for crime legislation that was tougher on crime. I would welcome legislation that was tougher on crime if it were evidence based and had a hope of being effective.
As a legislature, we act in ways that seek ways to enhance opportunity for people, especially those most in need. I will act in the way that ensures our communities are safe and our justice system is fair but tough on those who offend. However, what I cannot do is vote for a law that I consider to be a bad law, that is not rooted in evidence and that has no chance of succeeding.