Mr. Speaker, it is wonderful to see you back in the chair after the break.
Before the break I was talking about Bill C-48, a bill that would give judges of this land the discretion to consider consecutive life sentences in the case of people who murder two or more victims. I was talking about the importance of discretion in the Canadian judicial system. The reason I was talking about discretion is that justice, in order to be fair, in order to be defensible in a free and democratic society, must be tailored to meet the individual needs of every case. I was talking about how in Canada there is a very healthy balance between our collective interests as a body and the strong foundation of individual rights.
In my riding of Vancouver Kingsway I have many new Canadians. I had a new citizens party this last weekend where we welcomed people who had taken the important step of becoming Canadian citizens in the past two years. From speaking to these people, I know they were attracted to Canada for many reasons, including things like our respect for individual rights, for example, the right to privacy, an individual's rights to religion and an individual's right to his or her own political beliefs. Essentially, what they are really attracted to in Canada is the enshrinement in Canadian life of their right to choose to live their lives as they wish while not, of course, infringing upon the rights of others.
In our justice system, perhaps there is no more important place than that to respect individual rights. We need our judges in a healthy justice system to listen to all of the evidence, to consider all of the circumstances, to look at all of the facts and to render a judgment that is crafted to be appropriate to the circumstances of a particular case.
In the case before us, the bill would enhance judges' discretion by giving them another sentencing tool. It would allow them in an appropriate case, and I am thinking of cases perhaps like Clifford Olson, Paul Bernardo, or Russell Williams, or the case that happened in my province recently of Mr. Pickton, in which many lives were taken by these people, to impose a consecutive life sentence on these people, as opposed to having them serve it concurrently.
It is hard to argue with that proposal in some cases. Where we have someone who has murdered two or more people, it is very difficult to think of a situation where a person who has committed those murders might not, in an appropriate circumstance, be required to be locked up for the rest of their lives.
In addition, there is an important principle, which is that Canadian law at present really makes no distinction in the sentence given to someone who murders one person and someone who murders 5, 10, 15 or 20 people. The bill would give our judges the discretion to do that.
There are arguments on the other side, of course. I think it is important that we respond to and respect them. At present our sentencing system in this country for murder allows judges to give a life sentence. We had very painful, very exhaustive debates in this country in the 1960s and 1970s over capital punishment, when this country made the very mature, thoughtful and, I think, civilized decision to abolish the death penalty and replace it with a system that not only is more humane but that is also just. That system allows a judge in this country to impose a life sentence on someone who has been convicted of first degree or second degree murder.
Life in this country does mean life. The person who is given a life sentence will have that life sentence for the rest of their life. For the rest of their natural lives, these people will be subject to the supervision of the Correctional Service of Canada. The only question is whether that will be done within a correctional institution or supervised outside in the community.
After 25 years in the case of a first degree murder, a person is eligible to apply for parole, provided that person satisfies a wide battery of appropriate tests to make sure they are no longer a threat to society and have actually conducted themselves appropriately. They may indeed possibly be allowed to re-enter society, but again, under supervision for the rest of their lives.
Life does mean life under the present system and people will argue about why there will be consecutive sentences if there are already life sentences. As my colleague points out, people cannot live 300 years.
What does matter is when a person may be eligible for parole. By bringing this legislation in an appropriate case, such as Clifford Olson's, were that crime to occur today, a judge would have the ability to order consecutive life sentences so that eligibility for parole for someone like Mr. Olson would not be 25 years but may in fact be 50 years or even 75 years, effectively meaning that at the point of sentencing, Mr. Olson would never have the opportunity to get out of jail. I think many Canadians would agree with that principle.
I want to go over a few statistics. I think it is important to bring some facts to bear whenever we are talking about the criminal justice system in this country. In terms of the prevalence of multiple murders in Canada, Statistics Canada has compiled some facts showing the number of homicides in a year in Canada compared with the number of victims in those incidents.
As the charts reveal, between 1998 and 2008, the most recent period, 95% of homicides involved a single victim. Out of a total 587 victims in that time period, there were 26 cases of two or more victims.
Interestingly, the relationship between the accused and the victims in cases of multiple and single victim homicides has also been studied. Statistics Canada reveals that in the case of multiple victim homicides, the target group that would likely be affected by this bill, the largest single category of relationships was that of family. In the case of single victim homicides, the largest single category of relationships was that of acquaintance.
What that tells us is that the vast majority of cases of multiple murders in this country involve someone who has committed murder against their family.
Murder rates and sentences have also been studied vis-à-vis Canada and other countries. In its publication, “Homicide in Canada, 2009,” Statistics Canada has tracked the rate of homicide in Canada from 1961 to 2009. This, of course, is yet another area that shows where the Conservatives' desperate attempt to try to persuade the Canadian public that crime is going up is once again belied by the facts.
It has been found that between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, Canada experienced a sharp rise in its homicide rate. The rate more than doubled over that period, from 1.25 homicides per 100,000 population in 1966 to 3.03 in 1975. That is 35 years ago.
The homicide rate generally declined over the next 25 years, dropping 42% between 1975 and 1999. Since 1999, despite some minor annual fluctuations, the rate has remained relatively stable.
What we do know is that the murder rate in this country over the last 35 years has actually been dropping or remained stable.
Interestingly, when we are talking about the length of sentences, which this bill brings to the forefront, a 1999 comparison of international approaches of the average time served in custody by an offender with a life sentence for first degree murder showed that Canada exceeds the average time served in all countries surveyed, including the United States, with the exception of U.S. offenders serving life sentences without parole.
The estimated average time that a Canadian convicted of first degree murder spent in prison was 28.4 years. To give a comparison, in New Zealand it is 11 years; Scotland, 11.2 years; Sweden, 12 years; Belgium, 12.7 years; England, 14.4 years; Australia, 14.8 years. In the United States, for those who have been given a murder sentence of life with parole, it is 18.5 years. Again, in Canada a person convicted of first degree murder will serve an average of 28.4 years.
In the United States, in the case of life sentences with the possibility of parole, the range of time that must be served prior to eligibility for release varies greatly, from under 10 years in Utah and California to 40 to 50 years in Colorado and Kansas. The median time served prior to parole eligibility nationally in the United States is in the range of 25 years.
What this tells us is that there is a wide range of sentencing options and practices around the world.
The issue before the House today is the appropriate length of time for someone who may be convicted of the murder of two or more people.
I can speak on my own behalf and that of the people of Vancouver Kingsway. I will be supporting this bill for two key reasons.
First, there are appropriate circumstances for its use. Again I will use the cases of William Pickton, Clifford Olson, and Paul Bernardo, where it is appropriate that there be some measure in law to distinguish the heinousness of their crimes and reflect that in sentences. A person like any of them maybe ought to have consecutive sentences to reflect society's view that he or she committed a crime so heinous, so awful, so deranged that they ought never to have an opportunity to apply for parole.
There are cases of multiple murder, which, as I have read, most often involve families. There could be cases where there are extenuating circumstances and where it may be appropriate to have a concurrent sentence. I am thinking of the classic case of a spouse, perhaps, who comes home and finds their spouse in flagrante delicto with another person and, in a crime of passion, kills them both.
Nobody could ever justify such a terrible, awful, heinous response, but it shows there is a range even in the case of multiple murders for framing this debate and whether or not someone should get a concurrent or consecutive sentence.
Given the fact this bill does build in judicial discretion and that New Democrats do trust the judges of this land and the prosecutors and the defence counsel of this land to do their jobs and craft appropriate sentences with appropriate appellate review, we will be supporting this bill. We trust them to have that discretion. I will be voting for this bill so that murderers who kill more than two people do, in appropriate circumstances, have concurrent and consecutive sentences.