Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to participate in the debate this afternoon on Bill C-5, An Act to amend the International Transfer of Offenders Act.
I am very strongly opposed to this piece of legislation. I am opposed to it because I believe that it mucks around inappropriately with an incredibly successful program that is already in place. I see no need or no appropriateness to the government introducing these changes to a program that has served us so very well to this point.
I also very strong believe, as we have heard in debate today and recently from my colleague from Windsor—Tecumseh and my colleague from Vancouver Kingsway, that these changes proposed by the government will make our communities less safe, not more safe. It has completely the opposite effect than the government is saying it will. There are very serious problems with this and I cannot be clearer in my opposition to this legislation.
What is Bill C-5 about? It is identical to a piece of legislation that was introduced earlier in this government's mandate, Bill C-59. That bill died due to prorogation before there was any debate in the House. Bill C-5 contains amendments to the International Transfer of Offenders Act. We have had legislation around the international transfer of offenders since 1978. The current legislation, the International Transfer of Offenders Act, was enacted in 2004.
The act provides a mechanism for foreign nationals imprisoned in Canada to apply for transfer to their home countries to serve out the remainder of their sentence. It also provides the mechanism for Canadian citizens imprisoned abroad to apply for a transfer back to Canada to serve out the remainder of their sentence.
This regime about the international transfer of offenders has been in force for over 30 years, and both Liberal and Conservative governments have overseen the administration of this legislation. They have also, both Conservative and Liberal governments, overseen the transfer of Canadian citizens back to Canada.
How many people have used this mechanism? Between 1978 and 2007, 124 foreign nationals were transferred out of Canadian jails and 1,351 Canadian citizens were transferred back to Canada.
In the current act, the purpose of the act is defined in section 3, and that section says:
The purpose of this Act is to enhance public safety and to contribute to the administration of justice and the rehabilitation of offenders and their reintegration into the community by enabling offenders to serve their sentences in the country of which they are citizens or nationals.
Correctional Service Canada, which obviously has a key interest in the legislation, has a website dedicated to this Transfer of Offenders Act, and it gives more detailed background about the principles underlying how this actually works. I will just quote from that website. It says:
Canadians incarcerated in foreign countries often find themselves facing serious problems coping with local conditions. The most common problems involve culture shock, isolation, language barriers, poor diets, inadequate medical care, disease and inability to contact friends and family...In some prison systems, the offender's family is expected to provide food and financial assistance.
It goes on to say:
The purpose of these agreements is humanitarian to enable offenders to serve their sentence in their country of citizenship, to alleviate undue hardships borne by offenders and their families and facilitate their eventual reintegration into society...Once transferred, the offender's sentence is administered in accordance with the laws of the receiving country.
Just as an aside, this agreement is very important to people in my own constituency. Recently I was visited by a constituent whose son is incarcerated in Japan. He is going through many of those issues that were mentioned on the Correctional Service Canada website, dealing with culture shock, isolation, language barriers in the Japanese correctional system, which is perhaps one of the better ones that a Canadian who is incarcerated overseas might have to deal with. The constituent was explaining to me the difficulties that she and her husband are having in terms of ensuring the safety, the well-being of their son, given the very serious trouble he got into, and everybody acknowledges that he did make some very serious errors.
They are also concerned about some of the changes in consular services that are available to people overseas from Canadian officials when they find themselves in these kinds of very difficult situations. There are very real purposes that affect Canadian families, given the kind of trouble that people have gotten into overseas.
The act explains the process for a transfer application. It says that for a transfer of a Canadian citizen to take place, the offender must consent to the transfer, the country where the offender is currently imprisoned must consent, and the Canadian government must consent. Therefore, the prisoner, the overseas government, and the Canadian government all have to agree to this process.
Currently, the minister of public safety is designated to review all applications for offender transfer and the act specifies that the minister has to consider certain things when evaluating an offender's application for transfer. There are four things that the minister is compelled to consider currently under the legislation.
The minister has to consider whether the offender's return to Canada would constitute a threat to the security of Canada. The minister has to consider whether the offender left or remained outside Canada with the intention of abandoning Canada as his or her place of permanent residence. The minister also needs to consider whether the offender has any social or family ties in Canada, and finally, whether the foreign entity or its prison system represents a serious threat to the offender's security or human rights. Those are all the current requirements that we see in the existing International Transfer of Offenders Act.
The bill before us, Bill C-5, proposes to change those requirements, and it changes the legislation in a number of ways.
First, it seeks to add the words “to enhance public safety” to the purpose of the act. Where the current act currently states that the minister “shall” consider certain factors, and actually requires the minister to consider certain factors, the new bill, Bill C-5, would change this to read that the minister “may” consider the following factors, thereby dramatically increasing ministerial discretion.
It takes away the requirement to do certain things and in a sense proposes that there are certain suggestions the minister must take into consideration. It is a dramatic change in the legislation.
The new proposal, Bill C-5, seeks to add the phrase “in the Minister's opinion” to the existing factors laid out in the act. What are those new factors that are laid out in the act that the minister may consider, again that the minister is not required to consider but might choose to consider, given these proposals from the government?
Those seven factors are whether, in the minister’s opinion, the offender’s return to Canada will endanger public safety, including the offender's victim, family or any child, in cases where the offender has committed a sexual offence involving a child, as well as whether, in the minister’s opinion, the offender is likely to continue to engage in criminal activity in Canada. The new bill also proposes that the minister may take into consideration the offender's health, whether the offender has refused to participate in rehabilitation programs, whether the offender has accepted responsibility for his or her crime, the manner in which the offender will be supervised after his or her transfer, and whether the offender has co-operated with police.
However, the most important change in this list of factors is the seventh factor, which would allow the minister to take into consideration any other factor that the minister considers relevant. Let me quote that again. The direct quote is “any other factor that the Minister considers relevant” while evaluating an application for transfer.
That is a huge opening to discretion that is utterly inappropriate in this process, that any minister could have the opening to whatever he or she wanted to think was a consideration. To add that into this process is completely inappropriate and irresponsible of the government to go down that road. If there is a reason for defeating and abandoning this legislation, it is right there in that phrase.
What have New Democrats been saying? We have heard a number of New Democrats participate in this debate today. Our justice critic and our public safety critic have participated in the debate.
We agree that enhancing public safety should be one of the purposes of the bill. The safety of the public should be given consideration when assessing an application for transfer. I believe it is already included in the factors that the minister is required to take into consideration. I am sure any minister evaluating an application for the transfer of an international prisoner would take that into consideration.
I do not think there is any indication, and there certainly has been no evidence presented by the government, that public safety has ever been compromised under the current act. It certainly does not seem to be a dramatic problem, and one wonders why the government dreamt up this idea in the first place. It is not an issue that I have ever been apprised of in the exercise of this legislation and this program.
It is important to remember that Canadians transferred back to Canada under the act are not being released immediately into the community. They are returning to serve out their prison sentence in a Canadian correctional facility, where they have access to rehabilitation programs and will be subject to the supervision that our correctional system provides.
We have to remember that whether or not these individuals are approved for a transfer they are eventually going to come back to Canada. When somebody is sentenced to a crime overseas, they serve their time, and at the end of that time, they come home. We cannot block their return to Canada. It is to our advantage to ensure that they have rehabilitation, that they have access to programs that will help them turn their lives around.
That is one of the reasons that a transfer in many cases enhances public safety. If we can get someone back, if we can get them into our rehabilitation programs, if we can ensure that their parole conditions allow for appropriate supervision once they are out of jail, our communities will actually be safer in the long run, safer than they would be if somebody came back who never had to engage in any of these programs and who cannot be supervised once back in Canada. There are lots of good reasons for wanting them to participate in these processes. Public safety is a significant consideration already, given the way these programs work.
We can offer anger management programs, rehabilitation programs, and substance abuse programs in our prison system. Often none of these things is available in programs outside Canada. It is to our advantage to make sure that a Canadian convicted of a crime overseas has access to these kinds of programs.
That is a crucial reason why this legislation is ill-conceived. It would not contribute to public safety. It would lessen public safety, because it would remove the possibility of people engaging in our criminal justice system.
We have to look at how this system has operated. What is the reality of what has happened over the years? How has it functioned? Why would we consider changing the program if there is no evidence that there has been a problem? This is crucial.
There are statistics and facts to bring to bear when we look at this matter. I will give the House one statistic. Of 620 Canadians who were transferred back to Canada under this program between 1993 and 2007, and who were reviewed for readmission to penitentiary in the two years after their sentence expired, only four were readmitted for a new offence. This is .6% of the 620, a .6% recidivism rate among people who were transferred back to Canada to serve out a sentence for a crime they committed overseas. That is an incredibly low recidivism rate.
There is probably nothing in our criminal justice system that could approach this rate of success in ensuring that people do not get into more trouble once they have done their time. The general recidivism rate in our corrections system is around 20% to 25%. This by any measure has been an incredibly significant and successful program.
Given that kind of success rate, a recidivism rate of only .6%, that is, only four people with serious problems out of 620 between 1993 to 2007, it is beyond me why the government would change this program, make it more difficult to participate in it, or even suggest that we ought to increase the ability of a minister to deny someone access to a transfer back to Canada to serve out his or her sentence.
This program has worked. This is a program that we have long-standing experience with. This is a program that allows someone who has gotten into trouble overseas to engage the criminal justice system and correction system in Canada and take advantage of rehabilitation, substance abuse, and anger management programs. We have built these programs into our criminal justice to make our communities safer and to ensure that people who get into trouble have a way out, a way of turning their lives around after making mistakes.
This program allows participation in those kinds of programs. Yet there is a suggestion from the government that we should turn our backs on that success. I think it is absolutely incredible, to put it mildly, that the government has cooked up some mysterious reason that this is an urgent issue demanding the immediate attention of Parliament. There is no reason for us to take up our time in reviewing this program. The program is working and it is necessary. It is an important program for Canadians.
We have heard other reasons in the debate this afternoon about how the program sometimes permits people who have been unfairly convicted overseas to find a way back to Canada. That is one situation that we also need to keep in mind. We have recognized problems with criminal justice systems in other countries, and this program has given us a way of ensuring that Canadians have some recourse when they have suffered unfair convictions overseas. That is something we also need to keep in mind when we look at this.
I believe this is ill-conceived legislation, and I hope it will go down to defeat very shortly in the House. I cannot tell the government to go back to the drawing board, because I do not know what the issue was that it was trying to address in the first place. I do not think it should be mucking around with this successful and important program.
There is little more to be said, except that this bill deserves to go down to defeat in the very near future.