Madam Speaker, the Bloc Québécois is not against reviewing the Young Offenders Act. We are in favour of Quebec's model of dealing with young offenders.
This model has been developed over more than a generation. It has been unanimously supported by all political parties that have governed Quebec since the 1960s. Whether to maintain and improve it has never been the object of partisan politics. Over the past 25 years, it has consistently given Quebec the lowest youth crime rate in North America. It focuses entirely on the future and its main goal is to ensure that, insofar as possible, the young offender grows up to become a law-abiding citizen.
This model has been possible because the federal legislation recognized that its main objective was the rehabilitation of the young offender. The Assistant Chief Justice of Quebec's Youth Court, Mr. Justice Michel Jasmin, admirably summarized the basic philosophy underlying the Quebec model with these words: “the right measure at the right time”.
Let us take two examples at opposite ends of the spectrum: homicide and shoplifting. A young man has killed his father. Drunk most of the time, the father beat his wife and children and kept them in abject poverty. One day the young man decides that this has gone on long enough, and he kills his father. At the other extreme, a young man is part of a group of thugs who rob houses. When surprised one day by an elderly woman who puts up a fight, he hits and kills her.
Can people see that the two offenders have to be treated very differently? That does not mean that the first one deserves a medal. He has committed a very serious crime and should suffer serious consequences. What he did was unwarranted, even under such extreme circumstances. He must show that he understands and is sorry for what he did and that he will never again use force to deal with an unfair situation. He will regain his freedom gradually, depending on the progress he makes in the rehabilitation program he is referred to.
In the second case, the offender may be tried as an adult and receive the maximum sentence of life in prison, after undergoing a thorough examination that looks at his record, his personality, the failure of any previous rehabilitation and the clinical psychological data that comes out of the examination, in short, a series of factors that rule out any possibility of rehabilitation.
Two homicides, two different measures.
At the other end of the criminal spectrum is shoplifting. A young man has been caught stealing a CD by a popular artist. It is his first arrest. He does not want the police to call his parents, but they do anyway. When they arrive, he is as red as a beet. Shamefaced, he swears he will never shoplift again. It is easy to see that this experience and the parents' reaction will be more than enough to dissuade the young man from reoffending. He can be diverted from formal court proceedings and let off with a warning.
But another young man is caught stealing things that can easily fenced. It is his first arrest as well, but authorities will do a more thorough investigation before deciding whether or not he will go to court. They will try to find out more about his circle of friends, his family and school or work in order to determine the best way to ensure that he does not reoffend.
Two cases of shoplifting resulting in a first arrest, two different attitudes that will lead to two radically different measures. We always try to choose the best measure for the situation.
Between these two extremes, there are thousands of cases where, in choosing the right measure at the right time, judges hand down sentences that can be very different for similar crimes committed by young people with very different prospects for rehabilitation.
These sentences may seem lenient to those who are unaware of the results of inquiries made for the pre-sentence report on youth with the best prospects for rehabilitation. Other sentences may be the most severe sanctions under the law if the inquiry reveals that they are warranted.
The approach varies with the accused. The goal is to protect society by taking steps to turn the young person away from crime and to ensure, above all and as far as possible, that he will not become an adult offender.
It goes without saying that, to determine the best measures for achieving these goals, we must also take into consideration the seriousness of the offence, the degree of responsibility of the young person, his efforts to make restitution to victims when possible and other relevant and objective factors. This approach is taken because rehabilitating the young person is the best way to protect society.
Quebec's success is not dependent on the law but on how the law is enforced. Starting with the principle that rehabilitation is the goal in all but the clearly impossible cases, Quebec has created a multi-faceted system where the quality of the people who work with the young offender is of the utmost importance. Specialist judges are available in every region where that is possible and they are supported by psychologists, criminologists and social workers who can advise them about the identity of the young person, the risk factors that have led him to commit the crimes and the best means of ensuring his social reintegration while protecting the public. There are also specialist prosecutors. We build youth centres, not prisons, that fall under the responsibility of the health and social services ministry rather than the public security ministry. Guards have been replaced by psychoeducators and specialized educators who have a university or college education.
With regard to youth crime, like other types of crime, success is determined more by how laws are enforced than by the laws themselves. I know that this is particularly frustrating for federal legislators. However, in Canada, that is the way it is. In Canada, criminal law is a federal jurisdiction and its enforcement a provincial one.
The law has to leave room for an effective system. The law must not hinder a good system that has provided and continues to provide tangible results that are far better than the results anywhere else.
The Bloc fought long and hard for the Youth Criminal Justice Act that was adopted in 2002 to replace the Young Offenders Act because it favoured a more objective approach for treating young offenders.
After it was adopted, the opinion of many involved in the area of young offenders went something like this, “We used to deal with young people who committed offences and now we are dealing with offences committed by young people”.
We could talk about this at length, but we do not have enough time here. We will have more time in committee. For now, I sincerely believe that the first approach is the best. Rehabilitating young offenders is the best way to protect society in the long run. Rehabilitation has to be the priority of the youth criminal justice system.
The approach proposed in the bill before us takes us further away from Quebec's approach. Subparagraph 3(1)(a), which is a declaration of principle at the beginning of the legislation, states:
the youth criminal justice system is intended to protect the public by
(i) holding young persons accountable through measures that are proportionate to the seriousness of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the young person,
This is certainly a very important principle, but it already appears in the current legislation. It appears almost verbatim in paragraph 38(2)(c) which states:
the sentence must be proportionate to the seriousness of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the young person for that offence;
This shift from paragraph 38(2)(c) to subparagraph 3(1)(a)(i) is not so innocent when we look at what is being dropped.
The current paragraph 3(1)(a), which will be replaced by the new clause, currently says:
the youth criminal justice system is intended to (i) prevent crime by addressing the circumstances underlying a young person’s offending behaviour, (ii) rehabilitate young persons who commit offences and reintegrate them into society, and (iii) ensure that a young person is subject to meaningful consequences for his or her offence in order to promote the long-term protection of the public;
Under the current legislation, the first two objectives are prevention and rehabilitation.
To be fair, Bill C-4 does not completely dismiss these objectives. Rather, it says that we should “promot[e] the rehabilitation and reintegration” by “referring young persons to programs or agencies in the community”.
But it makes these objectives secondary to making the sentence fit the crime. In short, rehabilitation and reintegration will now merely be encouraged, not mandated.
This is an even more significant change from the former Young Offenders Act, which enabled Quebec to create a system that resulted in the lowest rates of crime committed by young offenders in America.
We believe that any youth justice system should focus primarily on rehabilitation.
This is not a sunshine-and-lollipops system, as some Conservative bigwigs claim.
Some young people have asked judges to send them to adult court so that they can avoid the rigorous requirements of young offender rehabilitation programs.
The government is defending its proposed changes by claiming that stricter sentences will be a deterrent. That principle has had very little effect on adult crime rates. Why would it be any more effective when it comes to juvenile crime?
Since this is the government's main argument, we should debate the issue in committee. Justice Canada has already ordered an in-depth review of the deterrent effect of various sentences in Commonwealth countries. The findings will surely be enlightening. Are there any studies that focus specifically on adolescents? Such studies would definitely be relevant. If there are none, we should order them. That is probably exactly where the government and the opposition disagree. We should have a public debate where we can set partisan politics aside and let cool heads prevail.
The government's decision to name this bill Sébastien's law is both strange and indecent. Sébastien Lacasse was the young man from my riding who was attacked by a group of angry youth who beat him. One of the attackers even stabbed him, which is how he died. Most of the attackers were over 18 years old. The individual who stabbed and killed him was under 18.
He was referred to adult court and received the maximum sentence, life in prison, and his name was released. The others, who were over 18 but did not directly cause his death, received various sentences, the longest of which was four years.
The sentence that the youngest person received certainly does not justify any amendments to this legislation. Since the legislation does not at all change the sentence that the killer would have received, I do not think it has any symbolic value. This is nothing more than propaganda for purely partisan purposes. It seems to me the Conservatives are exploiting the grief of his parents and loved ones.
This only confirms that the government's main objective with this bill is not really to reduce crime, but rather to achieve electoral gains. Unfortunately, a large segment of the population believes that we need to be tougher on young offenders.
But only until they learn more.
Only until they learn more about the real way we treat young offenders on a daily basis, more about the various professionals who work with them—from a constable on a youth squad to the judge and special crown prosecutor, to the university educated psychoeducators who care for them and assess them—and most importantly, until they learn more about the results we get. These results are the envy of many countries whose representatives regularly come to study Quebec's model in order to emulate it and change their own way of addressing juvenile delinquency.
The public very rarely hears rehabilitation success stories for young offenders. But we often hear about the failures. That is the nature of things. A murder, especially committed by a young offender, is an exceptional event that will necessarily get a lot of media attention. Crimes in general make the news. There is always something, and the more serious it is, the worse it is, the more despicable it is, the more we see it on the news. And there is something about youth crime, something we cannot put our finger on, that draws interest from the media.
For the most part, rehabilitation goes unnoticed. There is nothing special about it. It is a process that can take time, and it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when rehabilitation is achieved. However, the vast majority of young offenders do not re-offend.
It is difficult to talk about those who are rehabilitated. First of all, in all civilized countries, we protect their identities. Sometimes, well-known or well-liked public figures will reveal that they were arrested in their youth, and will speak about their rehabilitation, which helped them become the person they are today. However, these cases are not well known, while failures are widely publicized.
Recidivism has a face. If it is not the face of the offender, it is the face of the victim. Rehabilitation is anonymous.
In our media-crazed world, we hear a lot of talk about repeat offenders but rarely do we hear about those who are rehabilitated , which actually represent the large majority of those convicted. Repeat offenders are known to police but those who are rehabilitated are not, since they are obviously not arrested again.
The general public is misinformed about how youth crime is dealt with. It sees only the failures. I am not criticizing journalists. Again, it is the nature of living in a media-crazed world. Unfortunately, in this case, the medium is the message. It is the exceptional things that make news.
Every so often, journalists decide to take an in-depth look at the issue. And generally, their opinion on youth crime and how to reduce it becomes more nuanced. When informed, the public generally comes to the same conclusion.
We need to admit, from the outset, that we will never completely eliminate youth crime. There will always be failures. These failures will be rare, so the media will be sure to publicize them. We cannot be deterred from looking for the best ways to rehabilitate offenders. Not only is it important on a human level, but it is also the best way to ensure society's short- and long-term protection.
I often hear the governing party say that we need to get tough on crime. And the Conservatives always seem to say it with an air of triumph, as if they were winning a trophy or crushing an enemy. It takes a hard line approach because it believes that it will get votes that way. But it was also in the House that I heard the best line on this topic. It came from the member for Etobicoke—Lakeshore, in one of his first speeches, before he became the leader of his party.
As I recall, he said that the idea is not to be tough on crime or soft on crime; the idea is to be smart on crime. If there is one area where it is important to be smart, it is the area of youth crime, even though being smart is not necessarily very popular right now.
On September 18, 2009, the former Conservative leader, the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney, said to the big Conservative family as it celebrated the 25th anniversary of his coming to power, “Just because something is popular, that does not make it right.” He was quoted in Le Devoir on September 19, 2009. Former statesmen often like to pass on their wisdom.
This sentence seems especially relevant as we look at the changes the government wants to make to the Youth Criminal Justice Act. I very much get the feeling that the government is proposing these changes because they are popular. The tough on crime approach was a big hit in the United States and got many Republican representatives and senators elected.
As a result, nearly one quarter of the world's inmates are in American jails today. The incarceration rate in the United States is seven times the rate in Canada. Is it a safer country? Certainly not. Proportionally, if we look at the most serious crimes, homicides, there are three times more homicides in the United States than in Canada and four and a half times more than in Quebec. The Vera Institute of Justice, an American organization, determined that at least 22 U.S. states were prepared to give up the tough on crime approach. This also applies to the treatment of young offenders, which was based on the same principles.
Being tough on crime may be a good way to win votes, but it is an expensive, counterproductive approach that leads to a dead end. Rehabilitation, on the other hand, produces not only people who contribute to society, but huge financial and social savings for every young person who goes straight. When we see how much more violent crime there is in the United States than in Canada, we may be tempted to think that some of these offenders went through the American youth justice system.
Why follow the U.S. model when we have a system here that produces much better results? The rest of Canada should be following Quebec's lead instead of preventing it from continuing to use its system.