Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to rise today during the second reading of Bill C-42, the bill that proposes to limit the use of conditional sentencing for serious offences.
This is an important issue to constituents in my riding of Leeds--Grenville. They take getting tough on criminals very seriously. It is something that I hear constantly when I go around my riding. They are happy that our government has taken a number of initiatives over the last three plus years to get tough on crime.
We have heard from others who seem to have a problem with criminals doing the time for the crime. One could find all kinds of excuses not to support this legislation, but my constituents are happy that the government is finally taking these issues seriously. They are happy that our minister continues to introduce bills and they want to see them pass through Parliament.
My constituents get discouraged when they tune in to find out what is going on in Parliament and find that often these bills are held up by the opposition. Sometimes a bill goes through the House of Commons and then the other place slows down its implementation.
I am happy to rise today to speak in support of this particular bill. My constituents are happy that we have brought this legislation forward.
A conditional sentence is also known as house arrest. House arrest is a relatively new tool in Canadian law and it can be imposed when several conditions are met: first, the offence is not punishable by a mandatory prison sentence; second, the court imposes a sentence of less than two years; third, the court is convinced that the service of the sentence in the community would not endanger the safety of the community; fourth, the court must be satisfied that the conditional sentence would be consistent with the fundamental purpose and principles of sentencing; and, fifth, the offence meets the following criteria: it is not a serious personal injury offence as in section 752; it is not a terrorism offence; and it is not a criminal organization offence prosecuted by indictment and for which the maximum term of imprisonment is 10 years or more.
Sentencing judges may decide not to impose a conditional sentence even if all of the conditions are met if they feel that justice will not be served with such a sentence.
Bill C-42 would add new, clear provisions to the conditional sentence sections of the Criminal Code to ensure that conditional sentences are not available to individuals who commit serious violent crimes and serious property crimes.
Bill C-42 would remove some of the sentencing latitude that is now available for some of these offences. It would end conditional sentences for indictable offences for which the maximum term of imprisonment is 14 years or life.
This legislation would also apply to indictable offences for which the maximum term of imprisonment is 10 years where the offences result in bodily harm; involve the import, export, trafficking or production of drugs; or involve the use of a weapon.
In order to cover serious offences punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of 10 years, Bill C-42 seeks to eliminate the use of conditional sentences for: prison breach, luring a child, criminal harassment, sexual assault, kidnapping, trafficking in persons, theft over $5,000, breaking and entering a place other than a dwelling house, being unlawfully in a dwelling house with intent, and arson for fraudulent purposes.
As has been explained, conditional sentences were never intended for very violent or serious crimes but rather for less serious offences. They were designed to be used in cases where offenders would be better served by doing soft time in surroundings where they could be rehabilitated.
Unfortunately, not all sentencing courts have interpreted the availability of conditional sentences in the same manner. Consequently, many, including some provinces and territories, became increasingly concerned with the wide array of offences that resulted in conditional sentencing of imprisonment.
It is not just the courts that are concerned. Citizens, like those I spoke of from my riding of Leeds—Grenville and across Canada, are echoing those concerns. Residents of my riding of Leeds—Grenville, as I said before, continue to talk to me about these issues. They are very important to them.
I am happy to be standing up here today in support of another one of those initiatives. In their eyes the laws are not working properly. We need to look at them and make changes where necessary.
The best way to deal with the ambiguity is through the bill, which provides clear definitions of what crimes are not punishable with a conditional sentence. We attempted to do that months before with Bill C-9 in 2006. That bill was amended by the opposition. Bill C-9, in its original form, proposed a new criterion that would have eliminated the availability of a conditional sentence for offences punishable by a maximum sentence of 10 years or more, and prosecuted by indictment. This would have caught serious crimes, including designated violent and sexual offences, weapons offences, offences committed against children, and serious property crimes such as fraud and theft over $5,000.
Just last week we were dealing with another bill to do with penalties for serious property and theft crimes over $5,000. I was happy to have spoken on that bill as well.
However, opposition members of the justice committee, when they were dealing with Bill C-9, left it too open and too broad. The opposition voted to amend the legislation to only capture terrorism offences, organized crime offences, and serious personal injury offences as defined in section 752 of the Criminal Code that are punishable by a maximum sentence of 10 years or more and prosecuted by indictment.
Because of the changes imposed by the opposition on Bill C-9, it has become clear that the current conditional sentencing regime still fails to categorically make conditional sentences ineligible for many, very serious crimes.
My colleagues in the House might be asking themselves if it is necessary to amend the conditional sentencing regime once again, since the last amendments came into effect on December 1, 2007. The answer to that is a resounding yes. The concept of serious personal injury offences defined in section 752 of the Criminal Code was developed in the context of dangerous offenders. However, the opposition parties borrowed this as a limit on the use of conditional sentences when they modified the government's original proposal in Bill C-9 .
This has resulted in more confusion in sentencing in the eyes of the general public where, for example, people found guilty of such crimes as assault with a weapon and assault causing bodily harm receive conditional sentences. My constituents want to see a stop put to that. Serious property crimes in which fraud is committed against victims who have no recourse and receive no restitution for their often devastating loss bring the offender a conditional sentence.
We appear to be allowing criminals who do serious harm to others, physically or even monetarily, to serve their time in comfort. Once again, this is something that my constituents find very offensive.
Sentences are supposed reflect our society's abhorrence of the crime. What are we telling our citizens and those who commit crimes, when we send criminals, who wilfully and knowingly do harm to others, away to serve a conditional sentence?
I often speak about this in the House when we bring forward legislation that introduces mandatory prison sentences. When we introduce mandatory prison sentences, we are doing two things. We are attempting to show those who would commit those crimes that there will be a price to pay and that if they commit those crimes, they will serve the time. We are also attempting to use these mandatory prison sentences as a deterrent so that those who are thinking about committing such crimes will think twice before doing so.
Conditional sentences are an appropriate sentencing tool in many cases, but they do not need to be restricted when it comes to serious property and serious violent offences. Conditional sentences were created for less serious crimes. It is for this reason that they are not available for offences punishable by a mandatory prison sentence or for offences for which a sentence of two years or more is imposed.
We need to ask ourselves why conditional sentences were created.
Before conditional sentences were created in 1996, offenders who were declared by the courts to pose no threat to society were generally punished with sentences of less than two years in a provincial institution or suspended sentences with probation.
However, probation orders and other alternatives to incarceration placed—and still place—fewer restrictions on freedom and do not allow judges to order that offenders undergo treatment. There is no quick way to convert a probation order into a sentence of detention in the event the offender breaches the conditions of the sentence.
Conditional sentences were therefore created as an alternative to the sentences that could be imposed on this sort of offenders. The courts could quickly convert a conditional sentence into a sentence of detention, set limits on the offender's freedom and require the offender to undergo treatment.
A conditional sentence cannot be accompanied by parole or a sentence reduction.
As I said before, Bill C-42 is something that my constituents and many Canadians look forward to seeing go through this House. Bill C-42 fulfills a 2008 platform commitment made by our party seeking to restrict the availability of conditional sentences of imprisonment to ensure that serious crimes, including serious property offences, are not eligible for house arrest. In addition to the existing criteria limiting the availability of conditional sentences, Bill C-42 would deal with many of the things which I already spoke about.
These amendments are really needed, because the government's previous attempts to prevent the use of conditional sentences for any indictable offence punishable by a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment or more, which we brought forward in Bill C-9, were significantly weakened by opposition amendments to restrict the availability of those conditional sentences only for those 10 years or more offences, which were terrorism offences, something which I learned a lot about when we were dealing with the Anti-terrorism Act in the last Parliament.
The problem with the current law, as a result of the opposition amendment, is that the definition of serious personal injury offences lacks that true, needed clarity. It is really not certain whether particular serious property or serious violent offences such as wilful mischief, endangering life, causing bodily harm by criminal negligence, or serious drug offences would be interpreted as serious personal injury offences and therefore ineligible for a conditional sentence in all cases.
Bill C-42 addresses these flaws by providing a much more consistent and rational approach for the offences which cannot receive a conditional sentence.
Canadian citizens have many questions about this bill. They want to know whether the reform we are bringing forward in this bill will modify the fundamental purpose and principles of sentencing. This reform does not propose to modify or change the fundamental purpose and principles of sentencing contained in the Criminal Code. However, with respect to serious matters, it is going to require the courts to focus on the objectives of denunciation, incapacitation and general deterrence which I spoke about a little earlier.
Some might ask why we want to eliminate the reference to serious personal injury offences from the conditional sentencing regime, which is section 742.1, when the amendments brought forward by Bill C-9 in the 39th Parliament came into force just 18 months ago. As I said before, the reference to serious personal injury offences in section 742.1, a term originally intended to apply to the dangerous and long-term offender provisions of the Criminal Code, was the result of the efforts by the opposition and its amendment to Bill C-9. The reference to serious personal injury offences in section 742.1 does not clearly establish those limits on the availability of conditional sentences for serious and violent crimes.
Some also want to know if this amendment to the bill covers offences that are prosecuted by summary conviction. This reform focuses on the most serious cases, those cases that Canadians find most offensive, that were eligible for this conditional sentencing. Those cases which are generally indictable offences and carry a 10 year plus maximum sentence can also be prosecuted by summary conviction where the maximum sentence is much lower. In those cases where police and prosecutors exercise their discretion to proceed summarily, conditional sentences will still be available in those cases. The justice system must rely upon police and prosecutors using summary conviction charges in appropriate cases.
One thing that I was concerned about with the bill was whether all sexual assault cases would be ineligible for a conditional sentence. This reform will restrict the use of conditional sentences for all sexual assault offences that are prosecuted by indictment and punishable by 10 years or more of imprisonment. Consequently, sexual assault cases that are prosecuted by summary conviction will still be eligible for a conditional sentence order.
I have confidence in police and prosecutors using summary conviction charges only in appropriate cases. The offence of sexual assault covers a wide range of conduct, and not to allow conditional sentences at the very low end of that range would not be in the interests of the administration of justice.
I urge all members to support the bill moving on to committee. This is something which the constituents in my riding of Leeds—Grenville take very seriously. They are very happy that the government is taking action. I urge all members to get behind the bill and stand up and vote in favour of it.