Mr. Speaker, I would like to express a warm welcome back to you and to all members of the House. I hope everyone had a chance to spend time with their families and communities over the last six weeks as we broke from our activities in the House in mid-December and are now back to resume the people's business here.
The reason I start off that way is because today is January 31. This is an important day because it is the very first day that parliamentarians have returned to the House of Commons here in Ottawa after the break. We have been away for over a month, back in our communities talking to our neighbours, community groups and organizations, meeting with business people, talking to our constituents and getting what I think all parliamentarians would agree, is a thorough exposure to the fundamental issues facing Canadians from coast to coast to coast. Here we are back in Parliament on January 31, the first day back, and we are debating the very first bill that the Conservative government has chosen to put before this chamber.
Over the last month and a half I have heard, as have my NDP colleagues, of the pressing and important issues facing Canadians across this country. New Democrats represent ridings from the east coast to the west coast, from the Canadian border on the south to the high Arctic. We heard the same serious priorities of Canadians.
Canadians tell us they are having problems housing themselves. They are worried about their pensions, many of whom have pensions that are in crisis. They are worried about health care. Our seniors are wondering how they are going to pay their bills and whether or not they will get access to home care. Parents are worried about the cost of education. Students are worried about how they are going to pay their skyrocketing tuition and their mounting student debts, that is if they can get into post-secondary education at all.
People are concerned about the disappearance of good middle-class jobs in this country. They are concerned about how they are going to raise their families in the same manner they were raised by their parents and grandparents before them
Families across this country are worried about child care and how they can get quality, affordable, accessible care for their children while they go to work and try to sustain their families.
Victims across this country are worried about how their needs are going to be met. People experienced with crime prevention issues are wondering where their funding will come from. Organizations across this country that deliver social needs for every gamut of issue in this country are wondering how they will survive.
What is the Conservatives' number one priority in the face of all of these priorities, in the face of all of these issues? They bring forward a bill that since 1987 affects 187 people. In the last 25 years, a quarter century, about 187 people have applied under the faint hope clause in the Criminal Code to have their life sentence commuted to 15 years because they have rehabilitated themselves. The government is taking up valuable legislative time in this chamber to get rid of that.
The government does not want to deal with housing, education or home care. It does not want to talk about crime prevention or community safety. It wants to go after people in prison to make sure that the tiny, minute, infinitesimal number of people affected by this legislation are stripped of any opportunity to rehabilitate themselves at all.
Governing is about choosing priorities. I do not think we are going to get a more stark reminder than this of what the Conservative government's priorities are and how incredibly divergent those priorities are from the very real priorities facing Canadians and their families today.
My hon. colleague from Burnaby—New Westminster made several references to me speaking about the youth gang prevention fund. I am going to speak about that because it also reflects a sense of priorities.
The Conservative government stakes a lot of political weight on its reputation as being tough on crime. The Conservatives claim they are the party that stands up for victims of crime, that they want to make our communities safer. Let us examine a few facts about that.
The youth gang prevention fund is a program that is funded by the federal government. That funding goes to dozens of organizations across this country, with one goal in mind: to help keep youth out of gangs. In Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and many other communities, dozens of programs are being run on a shoestring budget to try to divert troubled kids and kids who are at risk from going into gangs and going into a life of crime. The amount of money that is invested in this program: $33 million over five years. That is about $6.5 million a year. Our research indicates that about 1,000 youth have been in these programs; that is, 1,000 people who are being exposed to positive role models and who are being identified and worked with to help keep them out of a life of crime. Those programs, I am told, are oversubscribed and full.
That funding runs out in March. What do we hear? That the Conservative government is going to allow that funding to lapse. It can spend, by its own admission, $2 billion to $4 billion on building more prison cells, and of course we all know that those costs are vastly underestimated. Probably a more likely amount is at least $10 billion will be spent by the government over the next five years for building more prison cells, but it will not spend $6 million a year to keep our youth out of prisons. That is a striking sense of the priorities of the Conservative government. It prefers to talk tough, to have show, to play politics and prefers to issue propaganda and go after programs that do not affect anybody across this country but a small amount of people to try to display its toughness while millions of people's real problems remain unaddressed.
While the government is bringing forward legislation on ending the faint hope clause, let us talk about what people and Canadians really want us to address, as parliamentarians, when it comes to crime.
First, they want their communities to be safe.
How do we do that? Do we think communities are safe by keeping 180 people over the last 25 years from applying for a faint hope provision? Absolutely not.
Canadians would tell us they want more community policing. They want more cops walking the beat in their neighbourhoods. Community policing means a police presence in our communities, where we have small neighbourhood police offices.
They want, in rural areas, access to RCMP detachments where, if they phone a 9-1-1 number, they can actually get a response in an appropriate amount of time; unlike what the government has done by closing and allowing the closure of single-member police RCMP detachments in British Columbia.
They want crime prevention programs. Canadians want better lighting in our streets. They want more prosecutors and judges in our courts so that we can actually speed up the administration of our justice system. They want more diversion programs, where people who come into conflict with the law get actual help for the problems that are really causing them to act in a deviant manner to begin with; more mental health programs, more addiction treatment.
We need an anti-gun strategy that would stop the inflow of illegal guns across the border into our country.
Canadians want us to understand and acknowledge the obvious, which is that we have to address the social determinants of crime, which the government has never said a word on in the time I have been in the House. I have never heard a single Conservative stand and say, “I think that poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of educational opportunities, lack of resources in our communities for our young people are the breeding grounds for crime and criminal activity in at least some cases”. I have never heard one Conservative say that. Conservatives are actually wrong about that, because the data displays that fact unbelievably.
We need more community facilities. Canadians want community centres, where they have recreational, cultural and social facilities where they can gather in their communities, particularly our young people, where they can come and play basketball, or they can learn a musical instrument, or they can take a language lesson, or they can pursue arts and cultural activities. These are the kind of enriched activities that our youth need to be exposed to, as opposed to being lured to perhaps illicit activities on the street.
But again, what do they get from the Conservative government? It brings forth legislation that would eliminate the faint hope provision from the Criminal Code. That is its response to those very real problems and concerns of Canadians.
Not only is that a factually unwise approach, but it is actually economically insane. We have already heard that no less figures than Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan, hardly left-wing liberals from the United States, have brought up examples from that bastion of left-wingism, Texas, and in the United States they are actually acknowledging what we New Democrats have been saying, year after year, which is that increasing spending on prisons, putting more people in prisons for longer periods of time under harsher conditions, not only does not reduce the crime rate but it bankrupts the treasury. They are actually withdrawing on that.
States, from Pennsylvania all the way to the Carolinas to Texas, are all actually putting more money into diversion programs and rehabilitation programs. They have found that half of the prisoners released in a year under the old programs are back in prison within three years. They recognize that what they are doing does not work. They are recognizing the approach they took over the last 25 years, having their prison population growing 13 times faster than the general population, by spending $68 billion in 2010 alone on corrections, 300% more than 25 years ago, has not done a darn thing for community safety except for bankrupting the taxpayer which is what the government will do if its policies continue going in the direction they are going.
Bill S-6, the faint hope clause, would, if passed, eliminate section 754.6 of the Criminal Code. This section allows for those serving a life sentence for murder or high treason the possibility of applying for parole after 15 years.
This faint hope provision was initially introduced in 1976, and the criteria for release and parole have been amended several times since. Presently the eligibility requirements are very stringent and include an appeal before a judge and jury, and unanimous approval of that jury before an appeal can even be heard by the National Parole Board.
According to the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, Mr. Don Head, as of October 10, 2010, there were 1,508 offenders with cases applicable for judicial review. Since the first judicial review hearing in 1987 began, there have been a total of 181 court decisions. That is right, in 25 years there have been 181 court decisions.
Of those decisions, 146 resulted in a reduction of the period that must be served before parole eligibility, and 35 resulted in a refusal. Why were those 146 decisions positive in terms of the application? It is because the system worked in those cases. The purpose of corrections is multifaceted. It is to remove a person from society. It is to punish them when they have transgressed against our rules of society. It is also to give them the services and functions that they require in order to attempt to rehabilitate themselves. That is what we want.
In some cases some of those people have taken that to heart, and some of those offenders have actually rehabilitated themselves. I am going to talk about why that is positive. When a person goes to prison in Canada, they are going to come out at some point. Just about everybody will anyway, 95% will. Of course people like Clifford Olson, Russell Williams and Mr. Pickton, in my home province, will never get out of prison nor should they.
There is a gamut of offences even under the conviction of murder. There could be crimes of passion, people who have committed crimes while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and crimes committed when people are very young. We believe, at least on this side of the House, in the power of redemption, that sometimes people can rehabilitate themselves and change themselves.
If that is the case, if people can correct themselves after serving long sentences—and nobody is talking about these people not serving long sentences. These are people serving 25-year sentences who after 15 years can apply and maybe have their parole eligibility reduced by a few years. Those people can change and the law recognizes that. In the Conservatives' simple world I suppose they would argue nobody changes, but that is false because people do change.
I have been to 25 federal institutions in this country in the last year and a half. Correctional officers will say that the faint hope clause helps maintain order and safety in prison because when hope is taken away from people in prison, they are left with absolutely no incentive to act appropriately. For some people that is important. Guards will say that they like the faint hope clause even for people serving life sentences because it gives them an incentive, a potential reward if they act appropriately, and the government wants to take that away.
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Beware of those in whom the urge to punish is strong”. There is some wisdom in that. The government is playing politics with the crime agenda and Canadians are starting to have its number on this by the millions. They know that the government is pursuing U.S.-style politics and approaches to prison and crime that do not work, that will bankrupt us and that will not make our communities safer. That is the bottom line.
Seeing the priority of this bill before Parliament on the first day of the session illustrates that better than anything that I could say. Do the Conservatives bring a bill forward that would actually help victims of crime? Do they bring a bill forward that would actually build sexual assault centres for victims of sexual assault? Are they bringing forth bills that would actually build community centres that would give our youth hope? Are they funding education and making educational opportunities wider for our young people? Are they building mental health facilities and addiction treatment facilities so that we can deal with some of the most important underlying causes of criminal behaviour?
It has been estimated by all sources that 80% of people in our federal system have addictions or alcohol problems. Does the government address that problem? Does it say that it will put $100 million, $200 million or $300 million into mental health and addictions treatment? That would help make our communities safer. If people in prison got the kind of treatment they needed, when they get out they would be less likely to offend. Does the government bring forth that legislation? No, it does not.
Instead, it wants a showpiece. It wants to look like it is tough. By being tough, it wants to remove a faint hope clause that is a carefully considered part of our criminal justice system that was negotiated at a time when we abolished capital punishment.
Maybe that is what this is really about. We heard the Prime Minister muse about being in favour of capital punishment, but the Conservatives do not have the courage to bring that bill forward because they know Canadians would not support it. They know Canadians would reject any party that sought to bring in a system in this country where the state started murdering people.
What does the government do? It goes after people in prison by removing the faint hope provision, one of the few things that might give someone who committed a murder when he or she was young the possibility of perhaps redeeming his or her life, maybe making things right for the victim and living his or her life in the manner that we all would want the offender to live. That is atrocious. In fact, there are stronger words to describe people who would pursue that as a criminal justice agenda. I will leave it as being uninformed, mean-spirited, insufficient, deficient and it will be unsuccessful at making any Canadian's life any better.
I would urge the government, if it is serious about crime, to work with the New Democrats and all members of the House to bring forth legislation that would address the social determinants of crime, that would make our communities safer, that would help our young people and anyone who has any contact with the criminal justice system and to work with the professionals in this country to actually make a difference in people's lives.