Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on behalf the New Democratic caucus today to Bill C-48, a bill that would provide the judges of our country with the discretion to impose consecutive life sentences in cases of convicted multiple murderers, which would be a change from the current state of law that imposes mandatory life sentences but which are served concurrently.
Questions of crime and punishment are profound. They raise some of the deepest emotions that we as human beings are capable of feeling. They invoke and often deal with feelings of great pain and hurt. Of course, whenever there is a crime committed, we have a victim or multiple victims to consider and their families.
What is indisputable is that behind every crime there is tragedy, a tragedy for the victim and the victim's family and friends, a tragedy for the community, a tragedy for our society and, indeed, a tragedy for the perpetrator, as well as his or her family and relatives.
Any time a crime is committed, we as a society and as parliamentarians must deal with the fact that there are broken lives, damaged lives and, in some cases, permanent harm needs to be dealt with. There is no more profound expression of these concepts than when we are examining the crime of murder.
It has been said that one of the most fundamental functions of government is to ensure the safety and security of our citizens. I agree. A well-functioning and well-organized society is no more than a social compact between citizens where we agree that we will come together and relinquish certain rights and freedoms that we would have in the state of nature and we agree to limit those in exchange for guarantees for our security and our safety.
Going back to philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes who described life in the state of nature as nasty, brutish and short, we have all agreed that we are all better off when we come together and agree on certain fundamental rules where we can have our personal safety guaranteed, the safety of our families and the safety of our property protected and preserved.
Foremost as citizens, I think fundamentally as citizens, we expect that the integrity of our physical beings is guaranteed above and beyond anything else. That is because we agree that in order to function as a society we need to agree to abide by rules.
Although we have a rights-based society, we all agree that our rights are extended only insofar as they do not offend the rights of others. In order to have a well-functioning society and to have a developing society where we all have our rights to pursue life, liberty and happiness, we must, above all, have our physical and property rights respected.
Those who commit murder commit the most profound violation of these rights. Therefore, the issue becomes that when a murder is committed, and in this case, as we will examine, when multiple murders are committed, what is the proper sentence to impose on someone who has violated such a fundamental and profound precept? More important and of relevance to this bill, what is the proper approach we should take to those who have committed multiple murders?
It is important that we remember that we are talking about murder. First degree murder is the planned and deliberate taking of a life, while second degree murder is a murder that is committed in circumstances that any reasonable person would know would likely lead to death. There are other concepts involved in both of those crimes but that expresses the elements of those serious crimes.
We are not talking about manslaughter where a death has been caused but perhaps without the intent necessarily formed by the person carrying out the act. We are talking about murder and multiple murders. We are talking about someone who has either deliberately or very recklessly, with some form of intention, taken the life of more than one person.
This bill would give a judge the discretion to impose consecutive life sentences for each murder. The life sentence for each murder would be served consecutively, as opposed to be being served concurrently, at the same time. The practical effect of this bill would be that it would empower the judges of our country in an appropriate case, where a judge so sentences, that a person convicted of multiple murders would effectively never get out of prison.
There are some powerful arguments in favour of this bill. First, there is currently no difference in the practical effects of sentencing between someone who murders one person and someone who murders two, five or even 10 people. To most right-thinking people, that is a question that requires some serious answers. In many people's minds, it would be considered unjust.
Second, the argument is that it gives judicial discretion, which is a major reason that I am in support of the bill. I am not necessarily in support of a blanket application of this rule, but I am in favour of judicial discretion.
Judicial discretion is something that is strongly defended and supported by the New Democratic Party. Justice demands respect for our judiciary. It demands an independent judiciary. It demands a non-political judiciary. Justice demands that the person deciding a case does so after hearing all of the facts, after listening to each witness, watching them testify and observing their demeanour. Justice demands someone who is learned and skilled in the law, someone who is bound by rules of fairness and justice to make a decision.
I have great faith in the judges of our land. I have great faith in their integrity, skill and commitment to justice. I am not so sure that it is a faith that is shared by members of the government opposite at all times, who I think are more skeptical and cynical of the judges of our country. I, for one, have great faith in their skills and fairness.
I also have great faith in our appellate system, because when errors occur, and they do occur, our appellate courts are poised and our system is well developed to rectify those errors.
Third in terms of favouring this bill is that multiple murderers presently can apply for parole because they have life sentences that are served concurrently. That means that a multiple murderer can apply for parole even though, as I will talk about, it is almost impossible for them to get it. It puts victims' families through unnecessary pain and anxiety.
When we are dealing with multiple murders, I believe we are dealing with a particular type of criminal who is distinct from most, maybe even from other murderers. Someone who has broken the social compact to such a degree that they have taken the lives of two or more citizens is someone who I think we have to seriously look at locking up for the rest of their natural life.
Presently, as I have said, although a multiple murderer may be able to apply for parole, the truth is they will not get it. There is not one case that I can think of and not one case that has been cited by the government of a multiple murderer being paroled or ever getting out of prison under the current situation. So that leads me to the question of politics.
I think the Conservatives are playing politics with this issue. They have taken a cheap idea that has no practical effect or consequence and they have run with it to try to make themselves look tough.
Here is a case where the government has taken legislative time to propose a change to a law that has no problem to solve. There is no case of a multiple murderer who is getting out of jail on parole. So although philosophically I think this idea has merit and we support it, in terms of its practical consequence we should make no mistake that this bill is all about politics and not about fixing any real problem in our system.
I want to move to the short title of the bill as an example of these politics. The short title named by the government is “Protecting Canadians by Ending Sentence Discounts for Multiple Murders”. That is as motivated by politics and partisanship as it is factually wrong. There are no sentence discounts for multiple murders. There is no such thing.
When persons are convicted of multiple murders, they get life sentences for each of those murders, and that life sentence is a life sentence. When a judge imposes multiple life sentences, there is no discount. That is just a cheap and wrong title for the bill, but it is typical of what the government has done by injecting hyper partisanship into the legislation of our country, which I spoke about yesterday and which I think is regrettable and wrong.
I want to talk about what Canadians do want. If we really want to make a dent in crime in our country, Canadians want to see more community policing. They want to see more police on our streets and in our neighbourhoods.
Last week I was in Chinatown in Vancouver. I was meeting with Tony Lam and members of the Vancouver Chinese Merchants Association and members of the community policing office. They told me that they have had to hire private security guards in Chinatown to deal with the vandalism and theft that they experience every day because there are not enough police and there are not enough quick response times to the break-ins. They are demoralized. In fact, they told me that the future of Chinatown in Vancouver is threatened because of the crime that is going on in the downtown east side.
If the government was serious about really trying to take tangible steps to help people in this country, it would start pouring money into community policing, as the New Democrats called for in the last election. We called for the hiring of 2,500 more police officers in this country and that has not happened.
It would pour money into crime prevention, which the government has cut. There was $60 million budgeted for crime prevention in the public safety portfolio last year, and the government spent $44 million. It left unspent one third of the small amount of money on the table for prevention.
Those are the things on which Canadians want to spend: more on crime prevention, more on community policing. That would make a difference in Canadians' lives. That would help make our citizens safe in our communities. That would actually help to lower the crime rate. That would actually put more criminals in prison, instead of putting forth an ideological and philosophical bill that, while I guess we agree with it, will do absolutely nothing to make any Canadian safer.
I want to conclude by talking about some of the root causes of crime, because it is about time we focused on this in the House. Poverty and drug addiction are a fact. Eighty per cent of people in our federal prisons suffer from drug addiction.
I was in the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon this summer. I asked the staff there what percentage of people who are in prison do they think are in prison because of their addiction. They said 70%. It was not a bleeding heart saying this. It was not a New Democrat saying this. It was not a criminal saying this. These are the correctional officers who work in our federal correction system.
We need to start putting money into alcohol and drug treatment, not out of compassion only but out of cold, hard logic. If we want those people not to reoffend, we need to get at the root causes of why they are offending, if we can. I realize that is not possible for many, but it is possible for some.
To the extent that we can do that, we have to do everything possible as a society and as a Parliament to attack those root causes, because what every Canadian wants is the same thing. We want those offenders, when they come out of jail, and 96% of them do come out of jail, not to reoffend. That is what keeps us safe.
In fact, the victims ombudsman who was let go by the government, or I suppose the proper term is “not reappointed” by the government, Steve Sullivan, said that victims do not want criminals to be in jail longer; what they want is those criminals, when they come out, not to reoffend.
Those are two profoundly different things. Keeping someone in jail for four years instead of three and a half, or seven years instead of six, or 10 years instead of eight will not do anything if we are not attacking the reasons they are in prison in the first place.
I am curious as to how the government will react to what I am saying. I am sure it will attack in some manner, but I will stand by what I said because it is a matter of rational, fact-based logic. We have to attack the roots and that is what the bill does not do.
This bill deals with the consequences of murder. It does nothing to address what might be some of the causes.
In fairness to the government and everyone, we cannot stop murders in this society. We cannot get into the mind of what a Russell Williams is thinking or a Paul Bernardo. Those people have committed the most violent, aggressive, unacceptable breach that is known in society and they should be put away for the rest of their lives. They have lost the right to walk amongst free people in society. Perhaps there is nothing that can be done for people like that. However, people like that represent a small portion of society.
This bill deals with multiple murders and that represents probably the tiniest percentage of people in our federal prisons. I agree that those people should never get out, and in appropriate circumstances, I agree that judges should be able to give consecutive sentences to show society's opprobrium at their crimes.
A Clifford Olson or a Paul Bernardo ought to serve consecutive sentences. They should never be able to put forth a parole application and put the victims, families and communities through the suffering, anxiety and pain that they would have to go through. We know that those people do not deserve to come back into society.
I hope all parliamentarians join together not only in support of this bill, but in support of a broader, more intelligent, fact-based and comprehensive approach to crime in this country so that we can accomplish what we all want in this House, which is safer communities.
I will conclude by saying that the government constantly attacks this side of the House for not caring about crime or not caring about victims, and I wish it would stop doing that. Ad hominem arguments are the lowest form of argument. It is name calling. We usually learn in about grade two that it does not work.
In this House, let us have respect for each other. Let us respect that we all care about crime and victims. We may have different approaches to the best way to deal with those issues, but let us start learning from each other, listening to each other and broadening the debate so that prevention, root causes and rehabilitation can join with a punitive aspect. There is room for a punitive aspect in our penal system. That is part of what it is supposed to do, but it is not everything.
We should involve lawyers, social workers, criminologists, victim groups, police officers and prosecutors. They should be part of a national debate to take a comprehensive view of crime.
Let us stop the politicization of this issue and start dealing with this as a mature society looking at a complex problem. We need to have good policy on crime in this country. We do not need cheap politics in our policy, we need sound facts.
I am prepared, on this side of the House, to work with the government and take its good ideas when they come, and some do. I think this is an idea that is good. However, let us make no mistake: this idea is not going to actually make our communities safer at all. There is room for philosophical improvements in our law, and I think this is one of them.
Let us join together and try to move to that next level as a country and as a society and deal with crime in a manner that I think our citizens want us to do.