moved that Bill C-25, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (limiting credit for time spent in pre-sentencing custody), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I thank the government House leader for seconding this bill. It is very important legislation and is an important part of this government's agenda. We are opening debate on the truth in sentencing act. The amendments to the Criminal Code proposed in this bill will limit the credit that a court may grant a convicted criminal for time served in pre-sentence custody.
As some in the House may be aware, section 719(3) of the Criminal Code allows a court to take account of the time a convicted criminal has spent in pre-sentencing custody in determining the sentence to be imposed. The code does not set out any formula for calculating this credit, but the courts routinely give credit on a two-for-one basis. In many cases the courts give credit on a three-to-one basis. In other words, for every day a convicted offender has spent in remand, the court will deduct from the sentence it otherwise would impose, two or three days.
Explanations for the length of a sentence are usually provided in open court at the time of sentencing. However, judges are not required to explain the basis for their decision to award pre-sentence credit. As a result, they do not always do so and this deprives the public of information about the extent of the pre-sentence detention. It leaves people in the dark about why the detention should allow a convicted criminal to receive what is most often considered to be a discounted sentence. This creates the impression that offenders are getting more lenient sentences than they deserve.
There is a concern that the current practice of awarding generous credit for pre-sentence custody may be encouraging some of those accused to abuse the court process by deliberately choosing to stay in remand in the hope of getting a shorter term of imprisonment once they have been awarded credit for time served.
For ordinary Canadians, it is hard to understand how such sentences comply with the fundamental purposes of sentencing, which is to denounce unlawful conduct, deter the offender from committing other offences and protect society by keeping convicted criminals off the streets.
The practice of awarding generous credit erodes public confidence in the integrity of the justice system. It also undermines the commitment of the government to enhance the safety and security of Canadians by keeping violent or repeat offenders in custody for longer periods.
Those who defend the current practice note that credit for pre-sentence custody compensates for the fact that the time a convicted criminal has spent in remand does not count toward eligibility for full parole or statutory release.
At present, a prison inmate is eligible for full parole after one-third of the sentence has been served. If parole is not granted, that same inmate will likely be set free on statutory release at the two-thirds point in the sentence. What this means in practice is that if someone is released on full parole at the one-third point in the sentence, every day he or she has served in prison will have counted, in effect, for three days.
If parole is denied and at the same time a person is set free on statutory release at the two-thirds point in the sentence, every day he or she has served in prison will have counted, in effect, as a day and a half.
The current system of presumptive release that currently underpins Canada's approach to corrections has recently been the subject of an exhaustive review by an independent panel. This panel's report entitled “A Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety” was delivered by my colleague, the former minister of public safety, in October 2007.
Among other things, the independent review panel recommended that statutory release be entirely eliminated and that Canada move toward a system of earned parole. The goal is to encourage prison inmates to sincerely apply themselves to the rehabilitative programs available to them in prison.
The practice of awarding generous credit for pre-sentence custody cannot rest on the foundation of a statutory release and parole system that has itself been subject to strong and impartial criticism and that may therefore be significantly changed in the future. However, those who defend the current practice note that the generous credit for pre-sentencing custody is also designed to take into account such factors as overcrowding and lack of rehabilitative programming for inmates in remand centres.
I have received many letters and representations from concerned Canadians on the issue of pre-sentencing custody credit. All too often they cite situations where violent offenders are set free after having served a relatively short prison term because a court has awarded them two or three to one credit for pre-sentence custody. One writer commented that if one of the purposes of incarceration is to reform criminals, then the current practice of awarding two for one is a dismal failure. He writes:
The rationale is that the criminal has been deprived of the benefits of programs that would be made available to him in a regular penitentiary. So, in addition to releasing him back into society without these rehabilitating programs, we send him out twice as fast.
It is hard to disagree with that.
Not only does the current practice deprive offenders of the prison programs that might help to keep them out of jail in the future, it also fails to punish them adequately for the deeds that led to their convictions in the first place. This is especially the case of those offenders who have been denied bail and sent to a remand centre because of their past criminal records or because they have violated their bail conditions.
Bad behaviour should not be rewarded.
This government is on record as having pledged to address this issue, something that the bill would do. We have tabled Bill C-25 to strictly limit the amount of credit the courts may grant to convicted criminals for the time they have served in custody prior to their sentencing.
Our government is following through on its commitment to ensure that individuals found guilty of crimes serve a sentence that reflects the severity of those crimes.
This bill would accomplish a number of important objectives. It would deliver on our promise to provide truth in sentencing. It would help to unclog our court system and avoid costly delays and would do this by providing the courts with clear guidance and limits for granting credit for time served.
The Criminal Code amendments tabled on March 27 clearly stipulate that the general rule should be one day credit for each day served in pre-sentence custody. If circumstances justify it, credit may be given at a ratio of up to one and a half days for each day served. In such cases, however, the courts would be required to explain the circumstances that warrant departing from the general rule of one to one credit. This would allow the judge the discretion to award credit of up to one and half to one in appropriate cases. That being said, when it comes to offenders who have violated bail or who have been denied bail because of their criminal record, credit for time served would be strictly limited to a one to one ratio without exception.
I want to repeat that no extra credit would be granted under any circumstances for repeat offenders or those who have violated their bail conditions.
The proposed amendments would provide greater certainty and clarity in sentencing. It would require the courts to provide written justification for any credit granted beyond the one to one ratio. The courts would also be required to state in the record the amount of time spent in custody, the term of imprisonment that would be imposed before any credit is granted, the amount of time credited and the sentence imposed. Canadians would no longer be left wondering about how a particular sentence has been arrived at in a particular case.
Although sentencing issues are complex, they are issues of utmost importance to this government. We need to work closely with our provincial and territorial partners to deal with the many issues associated with sentencing reform.
Extra credit for time spent in pre-sentence custody is widely seen as one of several factors that have contributed to significant increases in the remand population in the last few years. This significant growth has put provincial and territorial institutions under considerable pressure.
Since 2007, more people have been held in provincial and territorial remand centres than were serving sentences in provincial and territorial jails. Overall, remanded accused now represent about 60% of admissions to provincial and territorial jails.
Several factors are at work that may contribute to the fact that the remand population is rising. Across Canada, court cases are becoming more complex due partly to the rise in the number of complex drug and organized crime related prosecutions. Many cases now involve 10 and 20 appearances before the courts. Longer processing times mean longer stays in remand.
For example, in 1994-95 about one-third of those in remand were being held for more than a week. Ten years later, however, those held for more than a week had grown to almost half of the remand population. This is a significant drain on resources at a time when the justice system is already under strain with an increasingly heavy workload.
Trials are becoming longer which also increases the amount of time an accused is remanded. All of this adds up to an increase in the remand population. The result is that offenders spend less time in sentenced custody because they spend too long in remand, which is why the provinces and territories welcome the reforms contained in Bill C-25.
Many of my colleagues and I stood with provincial attorneys general and solicitors general when our government announced the introduction of Bill C-25 on March 25. I was in British Columbia with the attorney general, Wally Oppal; the mayor of Surrey, Dianne Watts; the Vancouver police chief, Jim Chu; and other police representatives, including a member of the Canadian Police Association. This all took place at the Surrey remand centre. I was so pleased to be joined by a number of my colleagues who have been very supportive of this initiative and all of the initiatives that this government has taken to combat crime.
I hope I am not embarrassing him when I say that I was pleased to be there with the member for North Vancouver, and I thank him for his support. I thank the chairman of the justice committee, the member for Abbotsford, and one of the women who has been pushing this issue for quite some time, the member for Fleetwood—Port Kells. Mr. Speaker, you know of her commitment.
I was also pleased to be joined on that date by the member for Surrey North who has been very supportive of our criminal law agenda. Members will remember a number of occasions when she has posed questions to me during question period all related to getting tough on crime and sending out the right message. I thanked her on that day and I am pleased that she has joined with me again today. I know of her commitment in this area.
Since the day we made that announcement, we have had overwhelming support from attorneys general and solicitors general because they believe that Bill C-25 will help them cope with the growing number of accused who are awaiting sentencing while housed in their jails. They believe it will help them stem the tide of increased costs due to a growing demand, which is why the truth in sentencing bill is very important to them.
At a meeting of federal, provincial and territorial ministers held last September, my counterparts unanimously encouraged us to proceed with amendments similar to those seen in the truth and sentencing bill and they indicated that this was a top priority for them.
These are important reforms. Canadians have been waiting for a long time. Many say that offenders too often slip through the fingers of out justice system without serving adequate time. As a result, Canadians have been demanding change. They believe there must be more truth in sentencing and that the sentence one gets is the sentence one should serve. This approach set out in Bill C-25 would help restore the people's confidence in the criminal justice system. In the oft-repeated phrase, justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.
This approach is also more consistent with the situation found in other common-law countries where awarding a credit for pre-sentence custody is far less generous than in Canada. One concern expressed by some critics is that Bill C-25 is unfair because it does not adequately recognize the pre-sentence custody that often occurs in overcrowded institutions that lack opportunities for education and treatment. It is not our intention that accused persons be encouraged to remain in remand any longer than is absolutely necessary. Rather, it is our intention that accused persons proceed to trial with as little delay as possible and, if convicted and given a custodial sentence, that they may be sent to prisons that are not overcrowded and offer more opportunities for education and treatment.
In that regard, my department has been working closely with provinces, territories and members of the bench and the bar to identify practical and effective ways to improve the efficiency of the courts to ensure they are able to meet the challenges now confronting them.
The approach taken in the truth in sentencing bill should encourage good conduct by accused persons while on bail and should encourage them to seek an early trial where possible and where appropriate to enter an early guilty plea. Above all, it would lead to greater clarity across Canada regarding the relationship between the sentencing posed on an offender and the credit for pre-sentence custody.
These changes are long overdue but late is better than never. Time and time again, Canadians have said that they want a strong criminal justice system. They want us to move quickly and decisively to tackle violent crime.
Our government is committed to protecting Canada's citizens and making those streets safer. We will continue doing what Canadians expect and deserve and that is making laws that will keep our communities and streets safer. We promised to tackle crime and strengthen security when we formed the government and we have kept our word.
Since we took office, we have brought forward several key pieces of legislation, including the Tackling Violent Crime Act, which, among other things, signals an end to lenient penalties for those who commit serious or violent gun crimes. Our government has a long list of accomplishments in tackling crime over the last two years. We passed legislation to increase penalties for those convicted of street racing. We passed legislation that ends house arrest for serious personal injury and violent offences, including sexual assault.
As members know, we recently brought in reforms to address the problems of organized crime, Bill C-14, and introduced Bill C-15 to provide mandatory sentencing for serious drug offences. On March 31, we introduced in the Senate Bill S-4, the bill to protect Canadians against the rapidly increasing crime of identity theft.
We are proud of those changes. We are standing up for Canadians who have urged us to get tough on crime. Canadians across the country have told us that they want us to take action on crime and, with this legislation, we are delivering. We cannot do this job alone. I greatly appreciate the support I have received from my provincial and territorial counterparts but more is needed. I call on all members of the House of Commons and members of the Senate to expedite the passage of this bill, indeed all the bills that are part of our ambitious justice agenda. Canadians are watching this and this is what they expect. I hope all members will agree that this is what Canadians deserve.