Mr. Speaker, I rise today to address the House on Bill C-25 which has two, two and a half or three amendments to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, depending on how we read it and interpret it.
This is another attempt, a very feeble one on the part of this legislature, to assess the usefulness of the criminal justice system we have developed with regard to youth crime and how best to deal with that within a legislated structure.
When I first saw the bill the other day, I must admit I was a bit taken aback because of all the chest thumping and macho speeches that we had heard from the Conservative government and its members on getting tough on crime. Then the bill came out with only a few sections, and quite frankly, a good deal of which is probably not necessary beyond a very limited scope.
In terms of trying to put that in context, we have to appreciate where we are at.
The thrust of the government has been to get tough on crime at least in both its ideology and its verbiage in response to a bit of a hysteria that it to a great extent has created. Again, we need to put this in context.
The reality is that for the better part of about 150 years, and certainly 125 years, the common law jurisdiction based on the English common law and the criminal law that grew out of that has always treated youth differently, although how we define them has varied from decade to decade. We stopped treating all crime by all age groups and by all citizens differently back around that time. This included bringing into our criminal justice system a recognition that youth, because of their youth, did not have the same capacity to make decisions as adults did. We do the same with people of limited intelligence or suffering serious mental health problems and who do not have the capacity to make conscious decisions at the same maturity level as adults do.
That has been an underpinning of our criminal justice system now for at least 125 years and probably close to 150 years. It has ebbed and flowed over that period of time.
When I first started practising, we had the Juvenile Delinquents Act, which was amended and changed into the Young Offenders Act, youth in conflict with the law, and now the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
The principle that we treat youth crime differently than adult crime has remained throughout all that legislation.
I think it can be argued accurately that when we passed the Youth Criminal Justice Act in 1999-2000, we somewhat expanded those principles and again looked at what was the best way to deal with youth crime. The emphasis clearly at that time, without any doubt, was they would be treated differently than adults, that the courts would have as their overarching philosophy that youth were to be looked at in terms of whatever we could do to rehabilitate, to treat and to bring them back into line so they would be exemplary citizens.
There is in my mind, again a serious attempt in the verbiage we get from the Conservative Party to undermine that principle, that we should in fact begin to treat youth as no different than adults when it comes to crime. Other than ideology, we could argue it is being driven by the spike in youth crime.
I do not think any member in the House, who has studied the rate of crime in the country, would deny that we have seen an increase in youth crime, particularly in the last three or four years, but in a very specific area. Unfortunately, that area is one of serious violent crime involving the use of guns almost always in a gang setting. This means the gun was acquired and used in circumstances that benefited by the fact that the individual was part of a youth gang or a street gang.
The statistics come out in May or June of each year. The initial reports I am getting back at this point is we may in fact be seeing a slight drop in serious violent crime committed by youth. I am not sure what the position of the Conservatives will be at that point if that in fact occurs.
Anyone who has studied the pattern of crime knows that we periodically have a spike. It is quite clear that legislation does nothing to deal with this spike. That is it does not make it go down. It does not allow it to increase. It does not have that kind of effect.
I want to make the point that we do not know why we have these spikes. We saw one in the adult murder rate in Canada in 2005. Then we saw it drop back a bit in 2006. We do know that the adult murder rate has dropped quite dramatically over the last 20 to 25 years based on a per capita rate of incidence.
Because of a number of the enforcement steps that have been taken in some of our major cities, and I think of Toronto as being somewhat the model of this simply because of the number of efforts that have been undertaken there by the police services and Chief Blair in particular, I expect we probably will see a similar reduction across the country, minor and then hopefully more dramatic over the next few years.
Whether we do or not, it is quite clear in my mind that we do not motivate ourselves to change the criminal justice system, and I am referring specifically to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which has had the effect of lowering the crime rate among our youth since it came into effect.
In terms of dealing with those spikes, we deal with them by way of enforcement and maybe other social programs, which are badly needed in the country, particularly for youth, and which are not properly funded by the government. In some cases they are not being funded at all. That is the methodology we have to use and not amendments to the legislation, if in fact it is functioning.
As an aside, I want to acknowledge the work being done in the province of Quebec. Before the Youth Criminal Justice Act came into effect, Quebec had led the country in moving into a number of programs of a restorative justice nature; that is taking the accused person and the victim out of what is basically an inhumane system and treating them in a much more humane way.
It is interesting that just this past week I, the member for Ottawa Centre and the member from the Liberal Party, the member for Yukon attended a session at city hall in Ottawa on restorative justice.
Just this past week I, the member for Ottawa Centre and the member from the Liberal Party, the member for Yukon, attended a session at Ottawa city hall on restorative justice.The new chief of police, Chief White, is a very strong proponent of restorative justice. During his address, he told us he had been a strong proponent for 22 years in various communities where he served, first as an RCMP officer and then as chief of police in other communities before he came to Ottawa.
He made his point of the inhumanity of our criminal justice system, particularly for youth and for their victims. He kept emphasizing the importance of restorative justice, of not using penalty, of not seeing a court system that is not humane, as the best methodology for dealing with this. He has a master's degree in criminology and has some done some major research on this. One of the points he made was that the use of restorative justice had the effect of reducing the recidivism rate by very substantial numbers and with youth, almost cutting it in half. That can be done across most crimes, if not all of them.
When we hear people stand in the House and before the media and parrot really what are U.S. methodologies and proclaim that it is the be all and the end all, it flies in the face of the reality that penalties and severe sentences do not work. They increase the rate of recidivism. Looking at alternative forms of dispensing justice works much better.
The province of Quebec started into this process earlier than any other province and more effectively than any other province. In spite of the fact that the Youth Justice Act incorporated a number of those concepts used already in Quebec, Bloc members opposed it. They felt the legislation, and I think they were somewhat accurate as we heard from my colleague from the Bloc earlier, would impede some of the progress they had made in fighting youth crime, and fighting it successfully.
In any event, although they opposed it, they continued their programs as best they could and much more successfully than the rest of Canada. The rest of Canada has been playing catch-up. I think over 30 years ago, I was involved in a diversion program that was not authorized by any law. It was poorly funded, but it was successful in spite of the lack of support from government at the time.
Although there were projects like that scattered across the country, the overall approach, the umbrella approach that the province of Quebec adopted early, has had a very beneficial effect. In fact, to this day, the youth crime rate and adult crime rate for serious crime in Quebec is lower on average than it is in the rest of the country.
Let me come back to Bill C-25. With the first part of the bill, I have to take some issue with my Bloc colleague when he says that the government is introducing a reverse onus with regard to pre-trial custody for youth who have been charged with a crime. I do not interpret the sections that way. In fact, this part of the bill is simply codifying what we are seeing across the country. I expect the bill will go to committee and when we hear evidence, this will be the message that will come from practising lawyers, Crown attorneys and defence bar across the country. It will not do anything to change the practice in our youth courts across the country. All it will do is confirm what our judges have been evolving over the last decade.
One might ask why we would bother doing it or why would we support doing it. My answer would be that we always have. A few judges may say that they will not do it because it is not in the legislation and that they will meet the criteria that they have. By putting it into the law, for those few judges who may not be following the pattern that I see all the other judges following, it will make it necessary for them to do that and they will feel comfortable and authorized to do that.
Basically, it simply says that if the young offender is faced with this criteria having been met, then we are not likely to release him or her from pretrial custody.
There is a presumption in the act that stays in the act, in spite of these amendments, that says, generally speaking, there is a presumption that a youth would be released pending his or her trial on the charges that he or she is confronted with. The judge would then take that into account and, if the judge felt comfortable, the youth would be released but, if the judge did not, the judge could keep the youth in custody and the judge had the authorization to do that.
I do not have any problem with that and would support the government's approach on it. Again, I do not think it will change very much but it will help in a few cases.
The second part of the bill, though, is much more problematic. I believe this part of the bill was driven by a Supreme Court of Canada decision that came down about a year and a half or two years ago where a lower court judge had tried to introduce the concept of deterrence when he was sentencing an individual. That went through the appeals court and then to the Supreme Court of Canada which said that it was not in the Youth Criminal Justice Act as a criteria to be taken into account. It stated that since it was rehabilitation and treatment and that it was moving the youth back into society as quickly and effectively as possible, deterrence was not a principle to be applied.
What the government is trying to do is to bring that into the legislation by way of amendment to the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
I want to make two points. The deterrence is both, with regard to the individual, what we call specific deterrence and also general deterrence.
We know, I suppose from studies all over the world and from criminologists, sociologists, psychiatrists and psychologists, that a great deal of youth crime is as a result of youth not being mature enough to make proper decisions and acting so often on impulse. When I say “acting so often on impulse”, almost invariably acting on impulse which results in them committing a crime, and sometimes a serious violent crime.
Deterrence, faced with that psychological reality, is of absolutely no use. Deterrence only works if one meets two criteria. One criteria is being aware of the penalty, and the vast majority of youth are not.
I was doing a seminar this summer at one of our drop-in centres for youth in the city of Windsor. We had a round table discussion with youth aged 15 to 18. I was amazed how overwhelmingly ignorant most of these youth were, and I mean that in the classic definition of the word ignorant, in not having any knowledge of the law. They were making all sorts of assumptions. Some thought the penalties were very severe and others thought there were no penalties at all. I think that group was a very accurate reflection of the individuals who form our youth in this country.
When we take that we can say that they have no any knowledge of it so they will not even stop to think about the deterrent factor because they do not even know what it is. Secondly, they will not stop to think at all because they are acting on impulse. It is not a conscious decision they are making in the vast majority of cases. Therefore, deterrence has no impact.
What we, as a party, are proposing to do with this and with the denunciation, which, quite frankly, I have no sense at all as to why the government would put that in, is to support this at second reading and when it gets to committee we will be looking to alter that part of the bill to take into account some valid changes in the sentencing principles but not these two.