Mr. Speaker, first, I support the bill going to committee for study. However, why are even dealing with this right now? We have one week to go before Parliament breaks for the summer, not to return until the fall. We have an EI crisis. We have a March motion for EI reform that passed the House of Commons, which has been ignored by the Conservatives. We have an isotopes crisis wherein cancer patients cannot get treatment.
There should be a bill before the House on EI, or on isotopes, not this legislation. We only have one week to go. Why are the Conservatives not dealing with the most serious problems facing Canadians right now?
The parliamentary secretary indicated that the reason the bill was before the House was to give people greater confidence in the justice system. We will have to go through this, analyze it and see if there really is a problem. If there is a problem, obviously it needs to be fixed, but we have to identify a problem before we simply start to change legislation that has been in force since 1975, with one amendment in 1997.
We are dealing with section 745 of the Criminal Code of Canada. What everyone has to remember is that when someone gets a life sentence, it is a life sentence. All it currently says under section 745 is that people cannot apply for parole until they serve 25 years. With the faint hope clause in the proposed amendment, all we are discussing is whether someone can apply in theory for parole earlier than the 25 years. If we wish to change the law to, in essence, reduce the standard or eliminate the standard, there really needs to be a problem. What is it?
Under section 745, for first degree murder or high treason, it says, “without eligibility for parole until the person has served twenty-five years”. For second degree murder, a person serves at least 10 years.
The faint hope clause was initially added in 1976, when the death penalty was eliminated and it was part of a compromise at the time. What may be interesting for people to know, or perhaps remember, is that at the time the average sentence for first or second degree murderers, who were not subjected to the death penalty, was seven years before they were eligible to apply for parole. What happened was that changed from seven to twenty-five as part of this compromise.
A lot of our western democracy friends, England, Belgium, a number of others, allow the chance of parole after 15 years. Once again, if we are to change a law that has been in force for years, what is the problem? Where are the statistics? What are we trying to solve, or is this simply ideology, which I do not think is an appropriate way to run a justice system?
With respect to the faint hope clause, substantial amendments came into force under Prime Minister Chrétien's government, under Justice Minister Rock, in 1997. We have to examine those very carefully in coming to this conclusion and answering the question on whether there is currently a problem. Let us look at that.
Under section 745.01, people, after serving 15 years of a sentence, may apply, but they do not have to apply and most do not, to seek to have the years of imprisonment, in terms of their eligibility, reduced. It is not them getting out. It is not saying their sentence is reduced. It is saying that the time period when they can apply for parole is reduced. How do they get there? If we look at the various provisions, they have to apply, pursuant to section 745.6, to a judicial review and they do that in writing. That stage has nothing to do with the victim's family. It is a judge who reads material and then decides whether there is enough reasonable evidence.
The judge has to consider various criteria in determining whether or not this can be talked about. Many people have used incorrectly the example of Clifford Olson or other multiple murderers and said that we cannot let them out. I agree, but they cannot get out under this clause, because subsection 2 says that a person who has been convicted of more than one murder may not make an application. Those people cannot even try under this legislation.
First, a judge, based on written material, has to make a legal determination that on a balance of probabilities, a jury would actually allow for some reduction. The onus is actually on the convicted offender to prove to a judge there is a reasonable possibility this would occur. If the judge finds that there is no such possibility, then nothing happens. If a judge finds there is a possibility, then he goes to a jury.
When the Conservatives talk about the public determining what should occur, or the public having confidence in the justice system, it is the public, not a judge and not the National Parole Board, but the public as represented by a jury, that actually determines whether or not the person is entitled, not to get out of prison, but to have the eligibility for parole reduced from 25 years, in the example of first degree murder, to something lower. It is a jury of our peers that makes that determination. Also, it has to be unanimous. If anybody on the jury determines that it is not appropriate, it does not happen.
Essentially the Conservatives are attempting to take away from a jury of Canadian citizens who have to reach a unanimous decision, the ability to simply reduce the possibility from 25 years to something lower, where the offender can then apply to get parole, but then still have to get the full permission of the National Parole Board. There is no guarantee. It is simply whether it can be done sooner.
Really, the Conservatives are trying to take away power from a jury to unanimously decide that something in theory could be reduced by way of when somebody could apply to the National Parole Board. That is what is happening here.
In terms of what the jury decides, a jury decides various factors. A number of these factors are enumerated. One of them is the applicant's conduct while serving a sentence. This is all new.
There will be hearings. If the bill passes and goes to committee, and I expect it will, we want to hear from multiple groups about it. My understanding is that prison guards use this as a method of keeping order. What would they say about it? I assume that people who want to rehabilitate these offenders, which is one of our goals and I will come back to that, would be against it. Let us hear from these various groups. Let us hear the evidence. Let us also hear what the problem is. I will address that in terms of numbers.
Before we get to the actual legislation, once again the jury decides unanimously whether this is even possible, in terms of whether somebody is allowed to go to the National Parole Board earlier. I will provide the jury questions and members can decide whether they are very soft.
On of them is, “Do you unanimously agree that the applicant's number of years of imprisonment, without eligibility for parole, ought to be reduced, having regard to the character of the applicant, his conduct while serving his sentence, the nature of the murder for which he was convicted and the victim impact statements, yes or no?”
If it is not unanimously yes, it is over. If it is unanimously yes by a jury composed of Canadian citizens, then it can go to the National Parole Board, but there is a second jury question, because in terms of the reduction of the sentence for when a person can apply for parole, a jury votes a second time. Essentially the jury has to agree by two-thirds what the reduced period of time will be, not for when the person gets out, but for when the person can apply for parole.
The second question is, “Are no less than two-thirds of you satisfied that the applicant should be eligible for parole immediately, having regard to the character of the applicant, his conduct while serving his sentence, the nature of the murder for which he was convicted and the victim impact statements, yes or no?”
Then, the third question is, “Having decided that the applicant's number of years of imprisonment without eligibility for parole ought to be reduced from 25 years, what lesser number of years do you, at least two-thirds of you, order substituted?”
We are getting a unanimous decision by a jury as to whether it could be reduced at all, and then two-thirds of the jury have to decide what the reduction is for when the person can simply apply for parole. If the jury can jump through all of those hurdles, it then still goes to the National Parole Board for the board to decide whether the person gets parole at all, and if so on what conditions.
Once again, with that current system which is very strict, the question is, with one week to go before Parliament breaks for the summer, why are we dealing with this legislation rather than economic legislation, isotopes legislation or employment insurance legislation? What is so urgent?
In terms of the statute that the government is proposing, the first section proposes to abolish entirely these provisions, not retroactively, prospectively, to abolish them entirely. There will be repercussions for that, whether it is rehabilitation, prison guards or whatever it may be.
We have an obligation to listen to these people, to get their opinions before simply deciding if something should pass the House. That is what the committee process is for. Once again I do support sending the bill to committee.
In terms of a change of legal standard for the persons who are currently incarcerated, they wish to change it from “reasonable prospect” to “substantial likelihood”. It is phraseology. At the end of the day, the judge can decide that there is no appreciable difference, it means the same thing and the case law will build up in terms of what that means. Essentially, I do not think that is much of a change. I personally have no difficulty with that change, but I do not think it is going to do anything. Once again, I do not know why we are spending time in Parliament now, during an economic crisis, dealing with this issue.
In terms of comments, the John Howard Society currently does not support the repeal of the faint hope clause. The society said, “Our position is that we're not sure that this is something that does need fixing or repealing”.
Let us hear from the government why it is doing this. What is the evidence?
In fact, the society is concerned that this could lead to increased violence in prisons because there is no incentive for prisoners to be on their best behaviour because there is no possibility that they might, even in theory although remote, be able to apply earlier for parole.
In 2008 there were 109 offenders who were successful in such an application. Of those, only a handful were sent back to jail for breaching parole conditions, not for the commission of any serious crimes. The question is, since this is a recent 2008 statistic, what is the urgency as to why we are dealing with this in the House of Commons now rather than dealing with economic issues or isotope issues?
There is also a recent quote from the Minister of Justice. His rationale for why we are dealing with this now is, “We cannot bring back those who have been so callously murdered” . The justice minister said, “We cannot repair the hearts of those who have lost loved ones. But what we can do is ensure that those who commit the most serious crime, taking the life of another, pay the price and thereby validate the life lost”.
I do not disagree with the quote, but if the rationale as to why we are here rather than dealing with economic issues is vengeance, I do not think that is a substantial reason for not dealing with isotopes, EI and economic issues with one week left in this sitting of Parliament.
Prison guards in particular would be a group that we need to hear from. I am personally concerned about what happens in prisons with incarcerated individuals. I have a couple of examples.
We talk about rehabilitation. A former inmate who is out and I understand is leading a productive life, said that before being released he has spent his entire adult life in jail. He said that the possibility of early release was the only thing that provided hope and the motivation to change. He said that he thought for the longest time that he would never get out of jail, so he created his own freedom by getting involved in drugs. He said that realizing that he had an opportunity to get out early, gave him a different attitude. He gave up drugs, pursued his education, re-established contact with his mother and two younger brothers and began exploring his native roots. He said he looked at what he could do to better himself. He got out and became a productive citizen.
He did all that, in terms of rehabilitation, because of the theoretical, although difficult, possibility not that his sentence could be reduced, but that he could apply earlier for parole to the National Parole Board.
I went through the current statistics. In 2008, there were 109 inmates released with no serious recommission of offences. Once again, why are we considering this bill, with the current economic crisis and a week left to go in Parliament?
There are other important statistics. If the government were serious about the criminal justice system, in terms of an overall package, it would be taking into account other goals, not just retribution, but things such as rehabilitation and deterrence. We should have a very sophisticated analysis from the Conservatives, including from the Minister of Justice, as to why they are not doing this rather than this blunt instrument approach.
In terms of the criminal justice system, we have heard from many experts in the last couple of weeks that it is broken down. The prisons are overcrowded and it costs over $100,000 a year for each inmate. There are serious addiction issues. About half of all convicts committed their offence while intoxicated by either drugs or alcohol. Four to five people going into prisons have an addiction issue. Yet, there is a clear admission, as we heard in committee this week, that they cannot stop the drug trafficking in prisons. Why? Where is the legislation fixing that?
There are mental health issues. Thirty-nine per cent of Ontario inmates have mental health issues. There is an admission there is not the capacity at present to give them treatment. Where is the legislation on that?
The reason this is very important is that over 90% of all convicted persons in our jails get out. Our focus should be our responsibility to the Canadian public to ensure that when inmates are released, they have received the treatment that has been required for them. Where is the legislation on that?
Earlier this week I had the honour of speaking in this House on the legislation regarding the sex offender registry. I recommended many additional changes to make that legislation stronger because I thought it was too weak.
What I do question is, with a week to go in this sitting of Parliament, why we are dealing with this legislation when nothing has been shown by anyone as to why it is urgent, especially with the current economic and isotope crises.
We have to consider this entire issue from a reasonable perspective. There will be committee hearings if the bill passes, and I believe it will. However, we also have to look at the broader perspective, in terms of a criminal justice analysis. It is not sufficient for a western democracy such as Canada to simply have the justice minister use retribution as the rationale for changing a law that has been in force since 1975.
We need to look at the statistics and approach the problem not with rhetoric or any other form of motivation, but in a reasonable and rational manner.
I have no difficulty with this bill going to committee, but I expect to see good evidence, hear witnesses and have considered reflection as to what this legislation should truly do, rather than simply a rationale of being tougher.