Mr. Speaker, the government recently introduced a bill that would eliminate a provision that has been in the Criminal Code since 1976, the same year, I should point out, that Parliament voted to eliminate the death penalty. It replaced the death penalty for the most serious crimes—first degree murder and treason—with a minimum sentence of life in prison. The same applied to second degree murder, which was also deemed punishable by a minimum sentence of life in prison. In addition, those found guilty were not eligible for parole for 25 years.
Many people are still confused about this and think that the sentence for murder is 25 years. But the sentence for murder is still life in prison, as it is for all degrees of murder. Also, eligibility for parole does not mean that a person automatically gets parole, just that he or she has the right to apply to the National Parole Board, which can deny the request, as it does in many cases.
That same year, they decided to establish a faint hope clause for certain reasons I will discuss shortly. After a certain amount of time, people who had been convicted of first degree murder were eligible after 25 years and could apply to a court consisting of a judge and jury for their date of eligibility for parole to be reduced to 15 years. It was the same for people who had been convicted of second degree murder, that is to say, for people who had been sentenced to life but whose date of parole eligibility varied according to the decision made by the judge who presided over the jury that convicted them. It could vary between 10 and 25 years. People who had received the longest sentence before being eligible for parole could also apply to a jury after 15 years. This does not mean they would necessarily be paroled. I will say in a moment how many applied and how many were successful.
Back in 1976, the members who voted to abolish the death penalty and decided to provide this faint hope clause had three main objectives.
First, they wanted to give some hope to offenders who demonstrated a considerable ability to rehabilitate themselves. If paroled, these people could return to society and it was necessary to make very sure that their efforts to rehabilitate themselves were convincing.
Second, the members wanted to encourage good behaviour in prison. In Canada and elsewhere in the world, it is inmates who have nothing more to lose who cause problems. They may also influence other inmates and sometimes initiate the riots we see occasionally in penitentiaries. Henceforth, they had something to gain and might behave better.
Finally, the members recognized that it was not in the public interest to continue incarcerating certain offenders beyond 15 years.
In some exceptional cases, there are people who have reasons to commit murder. I want to remind the House, though, that we never talk about compassionate murder in Canada because murder is murder. For example, there was the individual who killed out of compassion his child who suffered from a very painful illness and lived a really inhuman life. He was convicted of murder because compassionate killing is not an excuse in Canada. However, there can still be some exceptional cases and circumstances. There could be young people who kill a disgraceful father who beats his wife, their mother. People are incarcerated on the basis of all kinds of horrors. I think murder is one of the crimes with the broadest array of motives. In fact, a lawyer who killed his associate to get his life insurance has also benefited from this legislation.
I do not think we can talk about abuse in this area. I want to say at the outset that I am still open on this issue. The Conservatives’ motives are very similar to those of the Republicans from the southern United States, who have had so much influence on the American system—to the point that it is the most punitive in the world.
At present, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. They have had stiff competition from Russia, which was almost level with them. They are ahead of China. They incarcerate seven times more people, proportionately, than we do in Canada. I believe, I feel, and I have often said this, when I hear them talk, that their motivations for transforming the criminal law are not to make it better, to make it more effective against crime. Their motivations are clearly purely political, because it is popular to get tough on crime. In fact, humanity was very tough long before the emergence of the civilized countries in America, Western Europe and, increasingly, Europe as a whole.
The distaste I feel for their motivations should not influence me against considering a bill that is in fact a serious one. I know that is the only motivation they need: tearing down what has been done in the past. Giving the impression they are tough. To them, tough means smart. To us, no. Being smart does not necessarily mean being tough. We need to be tough when it is called for, but we have to recognize the possibility of rehabilitation and take more effective measures to combat crime. That is why I fight so hard for registering all firearms. It has a real effect on the most serious crime, homicide.
Let us talk about first degree murder. In fact, I think murder is more than manslaughter, necessarily. Murder is more than killing. Murder is killing with intent to kill. It is doing something that will reasonably lead to death, and not caring. It is firing a shot at a person and not caring whether that person dies or not. In the case of murder, there really is an element of intent which means that the person has done the most serious thing that a person can do on earth.
That calls for severe punishment in itself. Very serious consequences must be imposed on someone who commits this kind of crime. I think when we abolished the death penalty, we showed that we were humane, particularly as we have realized over time, given that the homicide rate has declined steadily in Canada since 1976 and has continued to decline in recent years, that fear of the death penalty did not have the deterrent effect ascribed to it. We took away that deterrent and there was no increase in the number of homicides.
But it cannot be said that it has been abused significantly. At present, there are 4,000 inmates in Canada serving life sentences. They could apply under the faint hope clause. Over the years, 265 people have applied under that clause. Of those 265 applicants, only 140 have been granted a reduction of the time to be served before applying for parole. That is 52%, about half. About half of the people who sought to apply under that clause have been rejected. So the number of individuals who have applied for this is not high in comparison to the number of individuals serving life sentences.
But that is not all. Once the applicants make that request, they must go before a judge. The chief justice, or a judge appointed by him, must first decide if there is a reasonable chance that the application will be accepted—in other words, whether it is justified—by a jury made up of 12 peers, of ordinary citizens who will have to vote and who should form a significant sample. The jury's verdict must be unanimous. At one time, a two-third majority was good enough, but that is no longer the case since 1997. So, close to half of all the applications under the faint hope clause were rejected.
Once an individual is allowed to go before a jury and gets a unanimous verdict to become eligible for early parole, it still does not mean he is going to get it. The National Parole Board has granted early parole in only 127 cases. So, out of the 140 applicants who went before a jury and got the jury's unanimous agreement to apply for early parole, only 127 were successful before the National Parole Board. So, there is another thorough review at that level.
What happened to these 127 individuals? Only 13 of them have gone back to jail for various reasons. So, this means 5% of those who made an application, and 10% of those whose application was accepted. Out of that number, 11 applicants are deceased. Others were deported, but only a very small number. In fact, three applicants were deported and one is free on bail.
So, it is not like we abused this clause. It is clear that it applies to exceptional cases, and that it is used exceptionally. I do not have much sympathy for murderers. On the contrary, as I said, this is the most serious crime and very serious consequences should be imposed on someone who commits such a crime. Still, I think that the reasons why this faint hope clause was included are good. In fact, not only is the recidivism rate very low, but some applicants who availed themselves of that option went on to play a useful role in society.
Take, for example, the lawyer who had killed his business associate and had tried to make it look like a hunting accident. He made an application under that clause and, since then, this person, who has a university degree, has been helping people on parole start a new and honest life.
Before making a decision on these issues, we must examine them thoroughly. The government did not provide us with any study to justify its position. This government has no justification other than reconsidering legislative provisions that seem too good to inmates. The government raised this issue, and it had the right to do so. I think we should take a close look at it. That is why my party will support the principle of the bill. I personally believe that this is a very serious issue. I will come with an open mind. I would like as much information as possible on the 127 inmates who benefited from the faint hope clause, and I would also like to know about patterns and about the type of persons that these individuals were. I also hope we will hear about failures, because there are some.
I recall seeing on TV reports on two or three highly publicized cases. Several shows were dedicated to the same individuals at different times. I have always been very sensitive to this issue because I have been dealing with crime ever since becoming a lawyer back in 1966. I am very sensitive to these issues. I hope that the worst cases will be brought forward. Then, we will be able to determine whether or not it is worthwhile to maintain this exceptional provision with respect to a very small number of cases. In our caucus, our culture and our religious culture, whether our background is Jewish, Arab or Christian, like mine, we consider forgiveness as a sign of civilization. There is no doubt that, in the case of individuals who have committed such serious crimes as murder, this forgiveness must entail major consequences.
In our culture, forgiveness is regarded as a value. I remember two of the greatest movies I have ever seen, namely Amadeus and Ghandi, making quite an impression on me. In the latter, an individual felt the need to go to Ghandi to confide in him. Ghandi was a man of peace who lived at a time when very harsh conflicts were opposing Muslims and Hindus. This individual told Ghandi that, seething with rage over the harm done to him, he had grabbed a child by its feet and smashed its head against the walls. “How could I do something so wrong?”, he asked Ghandi. To what Ghandi replied that, for his penance, he should take in a young Muslim—the individual being a Hindu—and raise him as his own son.
The notion of forgiveness exists in our cultures, but one has to deserve forgiveness. In the present case, there are many ways to ensure that an individual deserves it. We will look at that in committee. I hope that we will be better informed than by the sparse documentation we have received from the government.