Mr. Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to contribute to the debate on Bill C-27, which deals with dangerous and high risk offenders.
This is a bill that was tabled last October as a definitive response to a very real problem facing all Canadians: how to ensure that we are safe from repeat violent and sexual offenders. This bill does not target minor offenders. It does not target one time offenders. It does not target property offenders.
This bill goes after the very worst of the worst. It tries to address the concern that the most dangerous violent and sexual predators are properly sentenced and supervised if and when they are released into the community.
It is my understanding that some hon. members opposite have some concerns with this bill, to the extent that they may not allow this legislation to move forward to committee as it stands. My purpose is to encourage them to take at least that small step.
This bill has been tabled to respond to the concerns of ordinary Canadians, all Canadians everywhere, about safe streets, but it was also tabled to respond to specific recommendations that had been subject to thorough and rigorous review by justice system workers at every level.
The bill includes many important reforms that we on this side of the House feel are too important for community safety for us to allow them to die on the floor of this chamber. While I recognize that there might be disagreement at this stage of the debate on some issues, I am hopeful, and I implore this House for a willingness to get this bill before committee where there will be an opportunity to fully explore this bill.
The target of this legislation is dangerous and high risk offenders. We are not talking about minor offences in this legislation. We are not talking about people who shoplift or who get into a bar fight. That is not to underestimate or downplay the extent or seriousness of those offences, but we are talking about psychopathic and habitual predators who have proven by their conduct that they are simply unable to control themselves in the community. They have committed manslaughter. They have committed sexual assaults. They have abducted and sexually molested children, not once, not twice, but three or more times.
Having followed this debate, I have noted that the primary concern of those who have already spoken in the previous hours of this debate, as I have heard, is that this bill offends the constitutional rights of individuals who would be subject to the new provision that raises a presumption of dangerousness for individuals convicted for a third time of a specific or violent sexual assault.
I would like to take a moment to respond to this concern as best I can in the time allotted, using, of course, the expertise of lawyers and researchers who have supplied me with information Again, I am arguing the general broad points and, as a non-lawyer, I implore people to listen. Even if they do not agree with all the specifics of the argument I will put forward from the lawyers who laid this case out to me, I urge hon. members opposite to at least listen and realize that these points are debatable.
The last major reform of the provisions that apply to the sentencing and management of dangerous and high risk offenders, as provided for in part XXIV and sections 810.1 and 810.2 of the Criminal Code, was in 1996, when Bill C-55 was introduced.
That legislation was the result of an exhaustive review by a federal-provincial-territorial task force of justice officials from across Canada. They made a series of recommendations that formed the basis of those reforms and were eventually passed by Parliament and came into force in August 1997.
The position on this side of the House is that since these reforms evolved through the courts, further requirements for changes to these provisions have become apparent.
Bill C-27 seeks to address these specific problems.
My understanding is that the primary objective of Bill C-55 in 1996 was arguably to make the dangerous offender sentence process less cumbersome for the courts, and to ensure that individuals who were somewhat likely to reoffend sexually or violently, but who did not meet the dangerous offender criteria, would still receive adequate supervision once released into the community after their penitentiary terms had expired.
A number of important substantive changes were introduced to realize these specific objectives. In the first place, provisions were amended to make the sentencing of all dangerous offenders automatic, that is, if an offender was found by the sentencing court to meet the strict criteria of section 753 of the Criminal Code, then the court was to have no further discretion. The individual had to be sentenced to an indeterminate sentence.
I would like to emphasize that my understanding is that, prior to the 1997 reforms, individuals would be declared by the court to be dangerous offenders if they met the criteria of the provision, but the court was able to give either an indeterminate sentence or a determinate sentence as the court saw fit in the circumstances.
Prior to the 1997 reforms, the Supreme Court of Canada indicated in an 1987 court case, R. v. Lyons, that while the indeterminate sentence was arguably the harshest sentence available in criminal law, it was not unconstitutional as there were adequate procedural checks and balances to prevent an indeterminate sentence from being imposed in cases where such a sentence could not be justified. Specifically, the discretion to refuse the indeterminate sentence, as well as the availability of parole, allowed the court to find that the indeterminate sentence itself did not violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Supreme Court of Canada followed this approach in the subsequent landmark decision R. v. Johnson, in 2003, when it concluded that the 1997 reforms could not have intended to create an automatic indeterminate sentence for all individuals that met the dangerous offender criteria. Citing the prior ruling in Lyons, the court held that Parliament must have intended the reforms to be constitutionally viable and, as such, the 1997 amendment had to allow the sentencing court to retain full discretion to impose a fit sentence in the circumstances.
To give effect to this principle of constitutionality required discretion. In Johnson, the Supreme Court directed the sentencing court to refuse to declare an individual a dangerous offender if satisfied that a less harsh sentence, such as the long term offender supervision order, is available to achieve the objective of public safety, even if the individual fully meets the dangerous offender criteria.
Evidently this decision produced some inconsistency and confusion in the sentencing courts regarding the type of proof required to determine whether the lesser sentence could control the threat to the community, and who has the burden, and the extent of that burden.
In many jurisdictions, for example, sentencing courts have required crown prosecutors to meet the burden of the Johnson decision on the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. This can provide a huge strategic advantage to the offender, so I am told, so that counsel may advise them to simply refuse to participate in the entire process, leaving the Crown with a difficult evidentiary task to prove the negative in perpetuity without an opportunity to assess the offender directly.
I see that my time is running out, but I have gone through some of the legal points as best I understand them. I would like to finish off with a final general point.
We do not believe that the current situation is acceptable. We also believe there are real solutions that are not only viable but necessary. We believe Bill C-27 represents an important response to the problems with the current provision.
As such, I hope some effort will be made by all parties in the House to find a way to allow this bill to proceed to committee. This is a bill that protects public safety, protects our children and protects all of us. I urge all members to support this bill.