Mr. Speaker, it is certainly an honour for me to rise today to begin second reading debate on Bill C-16, ending house arrest for property and other serious crimes by serious and violent offenders Act.
This bill, aptly named, proposes to restrict the availability of conditional sentences in the same manner as advanced in the former Bill C-42 in the last session of Parliament. Our government is taking further action to crack down on crime and to protect the safety and security of our communities.
A conditional sentence of imprisonment is one that is less than two years and one that a court may permit an offender to serve in the community under conditions and supervision. Bill C-16 proposes amendments to the Criminal Code to ensure that conditional sentences are never available for serious and violent offenders, and serious property offences which were never intended to be eligible for a conditional sentence in the first place.
Let me be clear to all members of the House. This government's proposed legislation would ensure that House arrest is no longer used for offences that pose a significant risk to law-abiding citizens.
Conditional sentences of imprisonment came into force over 13 years ago with the proclamation in 1996 of Bill C-41, entitled “Sentencing Reform”, which is found in chapter 22 of the Statutes of Canada, 1995. Among the key elements of that legislation were the following: the creation of conditional sentences as a new sentencing option; the first ever parliamentary statement of the purpose and principles of sentencing, which are contained in sections 718 and 718.2 of the Criminal Code of Canada; and increased emphasis on the interests of crime victims, including the recognition that the harm done to victims should be considered at the time of sentencing.
As originally enacted in 1996, a conditional sentence was available as a sentencing option provided that the following prerequisites were met: first, the sentence must be less than two years in duration; second, the court must be satisfied that allowing the offender to serve the sentence of imprisonment in the community will not endanger the safety of the community; and third, the offence must not be punishable by a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment.
Shortly after the implementation of Bill C-41 and in response to concerns that courts were awarding conditional sentence orders for quite serious offences, a requirement was added that the court be satisfied that sentencing the offender to serve a conditional sentence of imprisonment is consistent with the fundamental purpose and principles of sentencing as set out in the Criminal Code.
The fundamental purpose of sentencing, as described in section 718 of the code, states that a sentence must contribute to respect for the law and the maintenance of a just, peaceful and safe society by imposing just sanctions that have one or more of the following objectives: first, denouncing unlawful conduct; second, deterring the offender and other persons from committing offences; third, separating offenders from society where necessary; fourth, assisting in the rehabilitation of offenders; fifth, providing reparation for harm done to victims or the community; and finally, promoting a sense of responsibility in offenders and acknowledgement of the harm done to victims and to the community.
The preconditions for a conditional sentence, along with the deemed aggravating factors added to the Criminal Code by Bill C-41, such as evidence that the offender abused a position of trust, were designed to screen out serious offences committed in circumstances for which denunciation, general deterrence, and incapacitation should be considered the primary sentencing objectives. In addition, the fundamental principle of sentencing is that a sentence must be proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender.
In 2000, the Supreme Court of Canada held in Regina v. Proulx that the conditional sentencing regime does not exclude any category of offences other than those with a minimum period of incarceration, nor is there a presumption for or against its use for any category of offence. The court said, however, that it was open for Parliament to introduce such limitations. Unfortunately, sentencing courts have interpreted the availability of conditional sentences in an inconsistent fashion because of the lack of clear parameters, allowing in some instances violent and serious offenders to serve their sentences under a conditional sentence of imprisonment.
This unfortunately has resulted in criticism of the sanction and a loss of public confidence in the administration of justice and, I would submit, in the justice system overall.
The government responded expeditiously to these concerns when it took office by tabling, in May of 2006, Bill C-9, an act to amend the Criminal Code regarding conditional sentence of imprisonment. As introduced, Bill C-9 proposed to eliminate the availability of conditional sentences for any offences punishable by a maximum sentence of 10 years or more that were prosecuted by indictment.
This would have caught serious crimes such as sexual offences, weapons offences, offences against children, and also serious property crime such as fraud and theft over $5,000. However, as ultimately passed by Parliament, Bill C-9 only further restricted the availability of conditional sentences by excluding terrorism offences, organized crime offences, and serious personal injury offences that were punishable by a maximum sentence of 10 years or more and when they were prosecuted by indictment.
As defined by section 752 of the Criminal Code, a serious personal injury offence has two components. First, it is defined to specifically include the three general sexual assault offences which are contained in sections 271, 272 and 273 of the Criminal Code that are used for adult and some child victims.
However, the second component of a serious personal injury offence does not provide the same certainty because it includes indictable offences other than high treason, treason, first degree murder or second degree murder involving the use or attempted use of violence against another person, or conduct endangering or likely to endanger the life or safety of another person, or inflicting or likely to inflict severe psychological damage on another person, for which the offender may be sentenced to imprisonment for a term of 10 years or longer.
It is this aspect of the existing conditional sentencing provisions that are so problematic and this is what the bill before us today addresses. Rather than leaving it to the individual courts to determine whether a particular case qualifies as a serious personal injury offence, this bill clearly identifies all offences which will never be eligible for a conditional sentence. It removes the uncertainty and provides clarity to our law.
Up until the coming into force of Bill C-9 on December 1, 2007, sentencing courts only interpreted serious personal injury offence for the purposes of determining whether the threshold for a dangerous or long-term offender application had been met under part 24 of the Criminal Code. This is because the term had been enacted and defined for the dangerous and long-term offender provisions only.
Since Bill C-9 came into force, courts have had to interpret the definition of serious personal injury offences in the context of conditional sentences, a context which is quite different than that for dangerous and long-term offenders.
For instance, in Regina v. Becker in 2009, a decision of the Alberta Provincial Court, and in Regina v. Thompson, a decision by the Ontario Court of Justice, the courts were asked to determine whether the offence of robbery was a serious personal injury offence in the context of the availability of conditional sentences.
In both cases, threats were made, yet in only one of the two cases did the court ultimately find that robbery met the definition of a serious personal injury offence. In other words, the eligibility of the same offence, in this case robbery, for a conditional sentence was interpreted differently by these two courts, with the result that a conditional sentence was available in one case but not in the other. Clearly, that inconsistency needs to be resolved.
In two other cases before the Courts of Appeal in the same two provinces, both courts interpreted the serious personal injury in the conditional sentence context in the same way, but differently from how serious personal injury had been interpreted to date in the dangerous offender context. More specifically, in the 2009 decision by the Alberta Court of Appeal, in Regina v. Ponticorvo, the court held that serious personal injury in the conditional sentence context included the use or attempted use of any violence and was not restricted to only the use of serious violence. In so doing, the court applied a different interpretation than it had to the same term in the dangerous offender context in Regina v. Neve in 1999.
Moreover, the Court of Appeal for Ontario, in Regina v. Lebar, in 2010, confirmed this approach and concluded that for the purpose of the availability of conditional sentences, Parliament created:
--a divide between crimes where violence is or is not used, not between crimes of serious violence and less serious violence.
That is found at paragraph 69 of the Ontario Court of Appeal judgment.
What these cases illustrate is that there is considerable uncertainty about how the existing conditional sentences will be interpreted and applied. However, this bill would provide the needed clarity and the certainty to say which offences are not eligible for a conditional sentence. This would, in turn, prevent the need to wait for these issues to be finally resolved by the appellant courts.
Another concern is that the definition of serious personal injury offences does not cover other serious property crimes which would still be eligible for a conditional sentence.
For instance, fraud, which can have a devastating impact on the lives of its victims, is punishable by a maximum sentence of 14 years. Although this type of offence can be every bit as devastating as a serious personal injury offence, it is still technically eligible for a conditional sentence.
In addition, the current prerequisites of the availability of a conditional sentence do not exclude drug offences unless they are committed as part of a criminal organization and provided that they are punishable by 10 years or more and prosecuted by indictment. Consequently, as a result, a conditional sentence would be available for the production, importation and trafficking in a schedule 1 drug, such as heroin.
I think members would agree with me that most Canadians would not find that result reasonable.
It is my view that the current conditional sentencing regime still fails to categorically make conditional sentences ineligible for many very serious crimes. Greater clarity and greater consistency is needed to limit the availability of conditional sentences and to protect Canadians from serious and violent offenders.
In order to address these concerns, this bill proposes to eliminate the reference to serious personal injury offences in section 742.1 and make all offences punishable by 14 years, or life, ineligible for a conditional sentence. This would make the offences of fraud, robbery and many other crimes ineligible for conditional sentences.
It would also clearly make offences prosecuted by indictment and punishable by 10 years that result in bodily harm, that involve the import or export, trafficking and production of drugs, or that involve the use of a weapon, ineligible for a conditional sentence.
While this element of the legislation would significantly limit the ambit of the conditional sentencing regime, the addition of these categories would not capture all serious offences prosecuted by indictment and punishable by a maximum of 10 years.
To resolve this, this bill also proposes a list of 11 specific offences prosecuted by indictment and punishable by a maximum sentence of 10 years that, upon passage of this legislation, would become ineligible for a conditional sentence. These offences are: prison breach, luring a child, criminal harassment, sexual assault, forcible confinement, trafficking in persons, abduction, theft over $5,000, breaking and entering a place other than a dwelling house, being unlawfully in a dwelling house, and arson for fraudulent purposes.
Conditional sentences are an appropriate sentencing tool, in many cases. However, access to them does need to be restricted when it comes to serious property and serious violent offences.
This government shares the common sense belief of all Canadians, that the punishment should fit the crime, especially when it comes to serious and violent offences, and serious and violent offenders.
This legislation, when passed by this House, would make it clear to the courts that those who commit serious property and violent offences will serve jail time and that house arrest will no longer be an available sentencing option.
I hope that all hon. members will appreciate that and support this legislation.