Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to take the floor on behalf of the Bloc Québécois on Bill C-36, the serious time for the most serious crime act, the objective of which is to restrict the eligibility of persons found guilty of treason or murder to apply for early parole. First, I will review the history of the faint hope clause, before speaking about the current procedure governing it and the changes proposed by Bill C-36.
Bill C-36 would modify the faint hope system. In 1976 the death penalty was abolished and murders were reclassified as first or second degree murder. Both are punishable by life in prison, but have different parole ineligibility periods. For first degree murder, the murderer must have served at least 25 years of the sentence imposed. For second degree, he must have served at least 10 years of the sentence, except in the following cases: when it involves a murder or deliberate murder under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, the period is automatically 25 years or when, given the nature of the offence, circumstances surrounding the perpetration of the offence or any recommendation of the jury, the judge sets a period of between 10 and 25 years.
The faint hope clause, which is now found in section 745.6 of the Criminal Code, was adopted in 1976 to permit those who had already served at least 15 years of a life sentence to apply for a reduction of the parole ineligibility period. It had three main purposes: to offer some hope for offenders who demonstrated significant capacity for rehabilitation, to motivate good conduct in prison, and to recognize that it was not in the public interest to continue incarcerating certain offenders beyond a 15-year period. These were the principles at the time.
Under the initial procedure, the offender had to submit an application to the chief justice of the province where the murder was committed, asking to reduce the parole ineligibility period imposed at sentencing. Next, the chief justice had to appoint a superior court judge who was assigned to form a jury of 12 citizens to hear the application. If two thirds of the jury members were in agreement, the period could be reduced. Upon the expiry of the new period, the offender could submit a parole application directly to the National Parole Board.
In 1997 there were major changes to the faint hope system. First, the procedure was changed to prevent multiple murderers from applying if one of the murders was committed after the date the bill came into force. Second, these changes required the chief justice to do a preliminary review and examine each case before forming a jury, so as to exclude applications that did not present a real possibility of success. Finally, these changes required a unanimous jury verdict for the period in question to be reduced.
In 1999, the Code was amended again by adding section 745.01, whereby a judge, when imposing sentence, is obliged to make a statement for the benefit of the victims’ family and relatives concerning the existence and nature of the faint hope clause.
There are three stages to the current faint hope procedure: the review by the judge, unanimous approval of the jury, and the application to the National Parole Board.
First, the requester must convince the chief justice, or a designated judge, in the province of the conviction that there is a real possibility that the application will succeed. If the requester fails and the judge does not prohibit the filing of a new application, he may file a new application after two years, unless the judge sets a longer period for doing so. Second, the requester must convince a jury of 12 citizens to decide, unanimously, to reduce the parole ineligibility period.
First of all, it must be determined whether the requester qualifies,and this decision rests with a judge. If the judge concludes there is no chance of the application being accepted, he denies the requester the right. If he allows this right, the offender must submit his application to a jury composed of 12 citizens.
The jury must be unanimous in deciding to authorize parole. If the jury refuses without prohibiting the presentation of a new application, another application may be submitted after two years or after a longer period set by the jury. If the jury accepts, however, it must set a new reduced period.
Third, at the end of the new period set by the jury, the requester may submit an application to the National Parole Board.
Let us look at the success rate for faint hope applications. As of April 9, 2009, of the 265 applications submitted, 140 requesters had obtained a reduction in their parole ineligibility period. The National Parole Board granted parole to 127 applicants, of whom 13 subsequently returned to prison, 3 had been deported, 11 died, one was out on bail, one was in temporary detention, and 98 were meeting their parole conditions.
At the present time, over 4,000 persons are serving life sentences in Canada. As of April 9, 2009, 1,001 prisoners were could apply for early parole eligibility. Of those, 459 had already served at least 15 years of their sentence and so could submit an application, and 542 had yet to reach the 15-year threshold but will be able to apply in the future. On average, it will be possible for 43 of these 1,001 offenders to file an application each year.
Bill C-36 proposes some changes. In short, it proposes two main amendments. First, it proposes to completely abolish, effective the day that the amendment comes into force, the right of all offenders found guilty of first or second degree murder or high treason to apply for early parole. Thus, effective the day that the proposed legislation comes into force, the right of offenders found guilty of first or second degree murder or high treason to apply for early parole would be completely done away with.
Second, the bill proposes tougher rules for such applications for all offenders found guilty of first or second degree murder or high treason before the day that the amendment comes into force, including those who are currently serving a sentence.
This restriction to which I refer would comprise four amendments to the present procedure. First, tougher selection criteria will apply for judicial review. From now on, offenders will have to convince a judge that there is a substantial likelihood that the application will succeed.
Second, the minimum waiting period for re-application if an offender has been refused will be five years. That is, the present two year minimum would be raised to five years.
Third, there is a new five year waiting period before offenders may apply, if they have not done so within the new three month limitation.
Fourth, there is a new three month time limit, that is a window of opportunity of 90 days, during which offenders may apply or re-apply: after the date the amendment comes into effect for the 459 offenders currently eligible to apply; after 15 years for the 542 offenders who will become eligible to apply; after the newly extended five-year period for those who re-apply; and after five years for those who did not apply within the three month window.
What position will the Bloc Québécois take throughout the debate on this bill? Bill C-36 addresses the most serious crimes, such as premeditated murder, that have the biggest impact on victims and affect the population as a whole. These most serious crimes deserve the most serious punishment, so those found guilty can be put in jail for life. Lenient sentences and parole granted too soon—after one-sixth of the sentence has been served, for example—undermine the credibility of the legal system and reinforce the feeling that criminals get better treatment than victims. But the Bloc Québécois also believes that punishment should not be the only goal of the legal system, at the expense of reintegration and rehabilitation.
Parole, even for murderers, is an important part of their reintegration and rehabilitation process because sooner or later, they end up back in society. When they do, it is crucial for them to have benefited from suitable tools to help them return to society in a way that is safe for everyone.
Bill C-36, which focuses on parole, could have complex consequences on the reintegration and rehabilitation of certain criminals.
In an effort to address this issue, the Bloc Québécois will study Bill C-36 in committee even though we have some concerns about it at this point.
There are still some issues we need to discuss. Are the reasons the faint hope clause was created still valid? The faint hope clause, which allows murderers to apply for early parole, gives them a reason to behave well in prison. What would happen if the clause were eliminated? Would it put corrections officers in greater danger at the hands of people who have nothing left to lose?
Will Bill C-36 sound the knell for cases of successful rehabilitation? There are examples such as that of Michel Dunn. He is a lawyer who killed a colleague but benefited from the faint hope clause and became an in-reach worker helping criminals reintegrate into society. Will this now be a thing of the past? We must remember that he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for 20 years for murder. He behaved well. He was reintegrated and is now helping prisoners.
The Bloc expects to take advantage of the study to raise these questions and get answers that will help enlighten the debate. It is only then that we will take a final position.
The most serious crimes under the Criminal Code are likely to lead to a life sentence. In the case of some crimes, such as treason and murder, there is no other sentence but life in prison. That is the minimum sentence.
There are a number of categories of homicide—murder, manslaughter and infanticide. Murder is the most serious category of homicide. It is a premeditated act intended to kill or fatally wound or to commit an illegal act in the knowledge that it will cause death.
There are two types of murder—first degree murder and second degree murder. First degree murder is premeditated and wilful. It is planned, in other words.
Other types of murder are automatically categorized as first degree murder in the Criminal Code. This is the case with the murder of a police officer or a prison guard or when murders occur in a plane hijacking, sexual assault or a hostage taking.
With manslaughter, there is no intention to kill, but there is negligence. Firing a shot through a hedge without thinking there might be someone on the other side is an example.
The Criminal Code is clear. Whoever commits first degree murder or second degree murder is guilty of a criminal act and shall be condemned to life in prison.
Only the period of time before an individual may be granted parole may vary according to whether it is first degree or second degree murder.
For manslaughter, the sentence is life in prison, but there is no minimum period of ineligibility for parole. The regular rules apply.
We must come back to what is called the faint hope clause. It is important to the current debate. In my backgrounder, we saw that there have been a number of amendments over the years. Eligibility for parole has been made harder to achieve. The Bloc has no problem with this approach. However, one of the reasons that criminals have access to parole is to reward their behaviour in prison, if you will. It is rather difficult to reward criminals. However, employees and corrections officers working with criminals need some support from the law for their actions.
One way of getting there is to encourage criminals to behave. Parole plays a role in this. We must ensure that criminals who want to be rehabilitated and who work hard, even in prison, to improve their lives have a hope of getting out because, in any event, they will be released some day.
Even if parole is abolished, these criminals will have served their 25 years some day and will re-enter society. We must ensure, therefore, that they are given the support and rehabilitation they need to become good citizens once they re-enter society.
That is the reality we are facing when we analyze Bill C-36 and that is why we must ask all the necessary questions and ensure that all the in-depth studies have been done.
I cited the case of Mr. Dunn, who was a murderer but was reintegrated very successfully. Parole enabled him to become a better citizen and return to society. He became a criminal justice social worker who helps to reintegrate other criminals. His is a fine example. Could a bill like this nullify all the effort and improvements criminals might make in prison? That is what we need to consider.
The tough on crime philosophy is not the Bloc’s philosophy or ideology, and it was not the philosophy our ancestors advocated over the years.
Why do we have a justice system with a judge and the possibility of a jury? It is in order to always find the best punishment for the crime that was committed. That is the result we want. When we try to replace it with minimum sentences and overturn the legal system our ancestors developed to produce the society we have today, we should really ask ourselves some questions.
Often we do things because they are politically easy. These are good decisions but the media are omnipresent. Sometimes they embellish events for their own purposes. It helps them sell newspapers and attract viewers for their newscasts. We must understand, though, that there is a need for balance and the justice system has always ensured this balance. That is what our ancestors wanted.
There are many other justice systems around the world, but they are not the one our ancestors chose. The government is trying to get rid of our system in which there are independent judges and juries made up of citizens who judge their peers. That is the system we have developed. I think we are heading off in the wrong direction every time we are tempted by events in the media to change the entire legal system by imposing minimum sentences and completely abolishing the parole system, without considering its benefits.
I asked an eminent colleague of mine, a criminal lawyer, whether he submitted requests for legislative changes to the government. Does the Bar do that? Sometimes it happens and reforms are made. Usually, though, it is politicians who decide for partisan reasons to bring forward changes to the Criminal Code in order to get some political peace.
Once again, that is dangerous for the democratic system we enjoy. The entire justice system is, in fact, part of our democratic system. The decision to supplant judges by including minimum sentences everywhere in the Criminal Code is motivated by media coverage of certain appalling cases. Often, we need to realize that the case focused on by the media is an extreme case.
The justice system obviously needs to strike a balance. It is for that reason that the symbol of justice is a set of scales. It is all about striking a balance. It is true that mistakes can be made sometimes.
Do we want the innocent to pay for a few mistakes that may have been made? The Bloc will always be completely opposed to that. That is not the type of society that our ancestors bequeathed to us. We are changing the course of history because, somewhere, some politicians decided that being tough on crime pays off. They looked at what is happening in the United States with the Republicans filling up jails to make citizens feel safer. The result is quite the opposite. There are more crimes committed per capita in the United States than in Canada. Quebec, which supports reintegration, has the lowest crime rate in North America. That is the reality.
The Bloc Québécois will act responsibly. With Bill C-36 it will try to adopt a balanced approach in order to have a justice system that lives up to our ancestors' vision.