Mr. Speaker, I am happy to speak to this issue today in this House. I should begin by making the following comment. Even though this is my first term in this House as the member for Jeanne-Le Ber, I have the feeling that history is repeating itself. Whether the Liberals or the Conservatives are in power, the government continually takes this same wrong-headed approach to preventing crime, especially youth crime.
Even though all the studies and all the statistics tend to show that this approach does not work, the government is continuing to go in this direction. It is true that these American-style measures, inspired by George Bush, are popular with a certain segment of the population, especially in the rest of Canada. The government wants to be tougher on criminals, tougher on crime, and it believes these measures will solve every problem.
That was particularly true, in the experience of the Bloc Québécois, when it came time to adopt the amendments to the Young Offenders Act. At that time, the bill had been introduced by the Liberal government and was clearly contrary to the wishes of Quebec. A unanimous motion had been adopted in the Quebec National Assembly and all stakeholders from Quebec demanded that no one disturb their model, based on prevention of crime, that the legislation not be changed, or, at the very least, that the law should provide for exceptions so that Quebeckers could maintain a system focused on prevention rather than on repression.
In spite of all that good will and that unanimity in Quebec, the Liberal government of the day went ahead with that bill. Some provisions were challenged in the courts. However, it is clear that in no way was the problem solved.
Today, we find ourselves again facing a government that adopts this George Bush-style philosophy and takes great pleasure in repeating its famous maxim that we must get tough on crime and tough on criminals. This government presents us with another, similar bill, which will do a great deal more harm than good.
In the course of my remarks, I would like to explain why this bill is bad. It is bad because it is founded on a series of false premises. In their reasoning, the Conservatives often refer to common sense as their argument. It is obvious, they will say, that if we introduce minimum sentences there will be less crime.
In my view, we must go beyond this facile argument of the alleged evidence and common sense. I would point out that for thousands of years people thought the earth was flat. It was a matter of common sense: look straight ahead and everything is flat. However, that was not the case. When one went a little further, one could see that the earth is round. It is somewhat the same thing in this situation. Even though, at first glance, it seems comforting and easy to say that we have only to increase penalties and crime will decrease; when we go a little further and dig deeper, we find that is not the case. When we compare the approaches used in different countries around the world, and even in Quebec, we recognize that is definitely not what is happening.
In the end, those countries where legislation is based on prevention will have the lowest rates of criminal activity while those that emphasize repression will have higher rates of crime.
To begin, what exactly is criminal activity? This is one of the Conservative government's false premises and the Conservatives know that very well.
When they say that crime is going up in Canada, that our cities are less safe and that we are living in a more violent world, they know that is not true. The figures from Statistics Canada show that this is not so. The Conservatives are absolutely misleading the public. Instead of doing their job and explaining why we should take measures focused on prevention, they go ahead with that tack.
Since the early 1990s, the crime rate has generally been going down practically across the board for all types of offences. Obviously, when we look at the figures provided by Statistics Canada, there are variations from one year to another. That is true for any statistic. For different years, there are different results, but the general trend since the early 1990s is a drop in crime.
In the meantime, the media give too much attention to certain crimes, let us say the most sensational. Some scandals are so despicable they truly shock us. The 24-hour news media reports these stories more frequently. The way this is handled by the media might leave us under the impression that crime is going up, but that is just an impression. We can say with confidence that our world is much safer now than it was 30 or 40 years ago.
I meet with people in my riding who say, “Thierry, I saw this crime or that murder in the news. It is just awful. Things are bad”. That person might be from the Saint-Henri area, for example. Today in Saint-Henri, a woman can walk alone, cross through a park and never have any problem. She does not have to be afraid of going for a walk. With all due respect, that may not have been the case 30 or 40 years ago.
Our communities everywhere are becoming safer. Is that any reason to be complacent? Of course not. The Bloc Québécois has some proposals for things we should work on.
However, the fact is that the prevention-based system produces results. We can see this even in Canada, where the crime rate has gone down since the 1990s, as I mentioned earlier. The trend is there. Last year, the crime rate went up slightly in every province except Quebec, where the legislation focuses the most on prevention, especially where young offenders are concerned. We see the same thing when we compare ourselves to the United States or any other country. This correlation is very strong.
The second big myth that will have to be dispelled is that tougher laws are effective. This is completely false, as we can see if we take the simple example of homicides. In a number of U.S. states, homicides carry the death penalty. I respectfully submit to the House that I cannot see how, in a modern society, there could be a more serious penalty than death. According to the theory of punishment, there is no greater deterrent than the death penalty. Yet the results do not bear this out.
The crime rates, for murder or homicide, in the United States are three times the rates in Canada, which has lighter sentences. In Quebec, the rates are four times lower than in the United States. We can debate and discuss that and try to find a lot of psychological reasons to explain it, but it is a fact. Stiffer sentences have not been successful in the United States or anywhere in the world where they have been brought in.
One of the fundamental reasons for this is that people who intend to commit crimes will not be deterred by the potential length of the sentence or the fact of a minimum sentence, but by the fear of being caught.
In any event, regarding the minimum sentences we are talking about, a subject dear to Conservative hearts, who in this House knows what minimum sentences apply to various crimes? For example, is there a minimum sentence that applies to theft of a vehicle over $5,000? Who in this House knows the answer? No one knows. We could do this for most sentences in this House. I see some doubting looks: people are asking themselves where I am going with this.
I am convinced that in this House, even we, as legislators, do not know by heart what sentence applies to a particular crime, what crimes call for a minimum sentence, and what that minimum sentence is. We do not know. Now imagine the young offenders on our streets. They have no idea about what the minimum sentences are. Do we really think that before they commit a crime they are going to go and consult the Criminal Code, and say to themselves that because there is a minimum sentence of seven years for a particular crime, they will not commit it, and instead they will choose to commit a crime with a minimum sentence of three years? Come on! It is absurd to think that. In reality, what truly deters criminals is the fear of getting caught.
There are people who commit crimes, for example murders, homicides. There are people who commit crimes of passion, because the sparks fly, as they say. In a moment of madness and agitation, they get into a fight and they kill someone. There is not much that can be done. They are not even thinking about the consequences of their actions. There are people who premeditate a crime and plan it so they will not get caught. It is of no importance whether the crime they are preparing to commit is punishable by 5 years or 10 years or 15 years in prison, because they are convinced they will not get caught.
And that is why, instead of devoting resources to longer and longer prison terms, we should be allocating that money to our public safety systems, police services, the RCMP and the entire crime prevention apparatus and trying to spot potential criminals, to try to catch criminals before they commit crimes.
The Conservatives often talk to us about families that are victims of criminals. They ask us what we are doing for them. Personally, I want to work to ensure that there are fewer and fewer families who are victims of crime. For a family that has seen one of its members killed, the fact that the minimum sentence is 7 or 10 or 15 or 20 or 30 or 200 years does not change anything. We must work from the perspective of prevention, and the best way to do that is to provide the resources to catch criminals.
There is something else we have to work on. That is parole. The Bloc Québécois has some proposals to make on that subject. Parole must be granted on merit. There should be no automatic release on parole. Each case has to be studied, and when it is appropriate, when there are good reasons to believe that a person is rehabilitated, then he or she will be released on parole. If the person is not rehabilitated, then he or she should remain incarcerated.
The bill before us now, like a number of the government's bills, includes measures to impose automatic sentencing. The government is telling judges that a certain crime calls for a certain minimum sentence and that they have to presume guilt. The government wants to make judges' decisions for them. Yet when it comes to parole, the government is leaving existing automatic measures in place and is ignoring this much bigger issue. After a criminal has been convicted and sentenced and has served time, the system should take into account whether that person is really ready for release. That is what really matters here. Telling someone that he or she will be sentenced to 10 or 15 years in prison regardless of the circumstances is not the best thing for our society.
I have talked a lot about crime prevention and the justice system in general, but when it comes to the youth criminal justice bill before us now, we must not forget that prison is crime school, and that is the truth. Send a juvenile delinquent—a kid who has done a few bad things or who has criminal or slightly anti-social tendencies—to prison, and he will come out a hardened criminal. Had other, more appropriate options been available, that young person might have had a chance at rehabilitation and might have become the kind of person who contributes to society and respects the law.
What happens when judges are told to apply a given rule automatically and hand down a set sentence? What happens when judges are given no room to manoeuvre so they can hand down an appropriate sentence? They are forced to send youths to prison even though it is not really necessary. The bill under consideration would reverse the onus for pretrial, presentencing detention for youth.
Imagine. This is an attack on the principle of presumption of innocence. The judges are told that unless the young person is able to prove he is not in danger of committing certain crimes, they must automatically send him to prison. It will be up to him to prove that he is not dangerous. The presumption of innocence will be reversed, even if we do not know whether or not he is guilty. But people are sometimes acquitted at trial. With this measure, young people could very well be imprisoned and end up being found not guilty. They would have been imprisoned for nothing.
Imagine the damage that could do to a vulnerable young person who may already be experiencing difficulties. He will be jailed in a school of crime, and he is subjected to that when he may not even be guilty of a crime. I must stress that this could be much more harmful than helpful.
Members may have noticed that I did not go into detail about this bill. A number of people in this House will do so. There has been much talk about it in the Bloc Québécois. Nevertheless, I would like to talk about the downside of this American-style approach. This is essentially a George W. Bush policy we are seeing today. It is a tough-on-crime policy, and that is how we will treat criminals.
At the same time, it is completely hypocritical, because they refuse to review the parole system or give our police services the money they need to catch criminals. Above all, they refuse to build a more just society where there is more emphasis on helping others. Since a good number of crimes are born out of poverty and human suffering, we would have a much greater chance of lowering crime if we tried to do something about that suffering.
To top it all off, the ultimate hypocrisy of the Conservatives, in trying to get tough on crime, is that they want to put more guns in circulation and they want to make life easier for those who wish to obtain and use firearms by dismantling the gun registry, even though everyone is telling them that it is the wrong thing to do. The police, lawyers and social workers are telling them that but, in spite of everything, they want to go ahead. Their policy in general is to simplify life for those who want to obtain firearms and to impose minimum sentences on those who commit crimes in the hope that they will not act up.
It is not the right thing to do. This government's crime prevention policy is bad. In fact, it does not have a crime prevention policy. It has a crime punishment policy that kicks in when the crime comes to light. This is not the way to go for Canada or for Quebec.