Mr. Speaker, as I often like to do when we stand in the House and have a dialogue and debate among each other about issues of crime and safety in our country, I like to start with what I think is a bridging set of statements in which we all believe.
I think every member in the House believes in and wants to create policy that keeps our communities safe.
I think every member in the House, legitimately and sincerely, wants to ensure that we have a justice system that is efficient, effective and geared toward the goals that we all hope our justice system would be geared toward, which is to ensure that our justice system accomplishes the goals that it purports to have.
That goal would be twofold, when we combine effective public policy on crime and an effective justice system, and that is to adopt policies that prevent crime as much as we can from happening in the first place and once crime is committed, to do everything we can to ensure that the person committing the crime does not commit it again.
I had the honour of being our party's public safety critic in the last Parliament and spent a good part of almost two years examining, in detail, the situation in our corrections system. I had the distinct honour and privilege of touring some 26 federal correctional institutions and seeing first-hand the work that our correctional officials do every day in our prisons. It also gave me an eye-opening experience into the real situation that was occurring in our federal prisons. I would encourage all members of the House, as members of Parliament, to inspect our federal institutions and learn first-hand what is going on.
A provision in the Corrections and Conditional Release Act specifically gives MPs the untrammelled right to go into our federal institutions and inspect them. As legislators, that is a very important responsibility so we can be supervising, monitoring and inspecting our federal prisons.
I will tell the House what I have noticed in visiting those prisons from my point of view. The people who populate those prisons are, as has been said, among the most marginalized people in society, in general. It is true that there is a small segment of the prison population who are incorrigible, dangerous and violent people for whom we have very little option but to keep locked away from society. Nobody in the House would suggest that the Clifford Olsons and the Paul Bernardos of the world should safely ever be returned to the streets of our country and they should pay a price for the crimes they have committed by being incarcerated for the rest of their lives.
However, we cannot make policy based on that small percentage, because what I also saw was that 80% of the people who are in our federal prisons today, men and women, suffer from an addiction. This figure is widely accepted on all sides of the House. The public safety committee heard expert testimony after expert testimony from corrections officials, from wardens, from the John Howard Society, from the Elizabeth Fry Society, from all manner of people who all agreed with that figure, that 80% suffer from an addiction.
Another commonly accepted fact on all sides of the House is that there is a substantial number of men and women inside our institutions who suffer from mental illness. Leaving aside, the obvious point is addiction itself is a mental illness. Issues like fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, brain damage, low cognition and those with brain injuries also are disproportionately represented in our prison system.
That leads me to my first point. If we truly want to ensure that when those people come out of prison they do not recommit offences, then we need direct resources at the real problems they face.
It is true that well over 90% of people in our federal institutions will leave those institutions and come back into our communities. They will be walking down our streets, walking down our alleys, sitting beside us in restaurants, applying for jobs. They will be members of our communities.
It is only common sense. It is not only from a moral point of view but it is from a self-interested point of view for us to ensure we do everything possible when we make policy to improve the situations that cause them to commit their crimes in the first place. That is why the New Democratic Party is a consistent voice for putting resources into crime prevention and into resources that address and attack the fundamental causes of these people's criminogenic behaviour where we can do so.
What I see in Bill C-10 is an accumulation of ineffective policies to solve a diminishing problem that is inexorbitantly expensive. I do not see how that will make a noticeable dent in the problem that we have in this country.
At the public safety committee, we asked a person from the United States who is a member of an initiative called right on crime to appear before our committee to tell us about the experience in the United States. The person who came up was the appointee of Ronald Reagan as the original drug enforcement agency czar. He also was the chief architect of the tough on crime policy that has been pursued by the United States over the last two decades.
What he told us was remarkable. He told us that the policies of toughening up sentences and incarcerating more people in the United States by pursuing policies like mandatory minimums, lengthening sentences, taking away judge's discretion and reducing sentencing options for judges has resulted in poor outcomes. He said that it threatened to bankrupt the treasuries of every state in which these policies are being pursued and that it has made no noticeable dent in crime. So, after spending billions and billions of dollars and locking up hundreds of thousands of citizens, the net result was that they were nearing bankruptcy and the crime rate was unaffected.
I said to members opposite in the House at that time that they had the benefit of the justice department and public safety department and that they had access to our civil servants who can access research that one hopes is being done before legislation is being brought before the House. I asked them to tell me the name of one jurisdiction anywhere in the world, a state, a government or a province, where these policies that the government seeks to put into law have resulted in safer communities with lower crime rates.
The answer I received was that there were none. No country could be named. That is instructive. Before we embark on a policy that will cost the Canadian taxpayers billions and billions of dollars, it is instructive and responsible of us as legislators to do our homework and to at least have an even chance of accomplishing the goals that we seek the money to achieve.
Crime is not an issue that is restricted to Canada. Every society in the world is grappling with this, whether it is Europe, Asia, South America or Africa. Crime exists everywhere. This is not a unique situation. We have examples all over the world of different approaches to dealing with crime. We have very harsh approaches, like the current government seeks to take our country in, and we have examples of more lenient approaches.
Surely there is a wealth of information in this world that we can glean from and craft best policies to ensure we accomplish the goals that Canadians want us to accomplish, and that is to ensure we prevent crime as much as we can and to reduce the possibility that somebody will commit a crime a second time.
I want to talk a little bit about police officers because our party, the New Democrats, has been calling, through the last three elections, for the increase of 2,500 police officers in this country. We do believe in putting police officers on Canadian streets and using them properly.
In my view, that means putting them in our communities and having police officers on bikes. Putting them around high-crime areas like sky train stations in my city of Vancouver is an important way that we can improve community safety.
The Conservative Party promised to create 2,500 police officer positions in the 2008 election. I have met with police boards and police chiefs across this country and they all tell me the same thing, that only a fraction of those 2,500 police officer positions have been created. The reason is that the money the federal government promised to give jurisdictions to create those positions has been reduced from ongoing funding, to five-year funding, to three-year funding. Police chiefs have looked the Conservatives in the eyes and said that they are not creating a single position when they only have funding for only three years.
There is no funding for the civilian staff that each police officer position engenders. The money has been transferred to provinces with no strings attached. The provinces have received that money without any obligation to actually create police officer positions and, in some cases, that money or portions of it have disappeared into provincial treasuries' general revenue.
The Conservatives have not fulfilled their promise to Canadians to create those 2,500 police officer positions. I would encourage them to do so because they have unanimity on this side of the House to do that.
If we really want to improve our justice system and reduce crime on our streets, we need to add more prosecutors and judges in this country. Our courts are overburdened. There are cases kicked out of courts across this country every day for want of prosecution and delay. I see nothing in Bill C-10 that adds police officers, judges, prosecutors and nothing that addresses addiction, mental illness and crime prevention. Those are valid, fact-based criticisms of this bill.
I will talk about what I have also seen in our federal prison system. There was a program in our federal prisons called CORCAN which allowed inmates to learn skilled trades and engage in programs like making furniture. The furniture would then be sold to the federal government at reduced prices. It was a win-win situation. It gave underskilled inmates an opportunity to learn soft and hard skills, to learn the discipline of work, to learn skills that would allow them to survive on the outside and maybe have a better chance of escaping the criminal lifestyle. It also gave the federal government much needed equipment at a reduced price.
Do members know what has happened to the CORCAN program? It has been reduced. I am not saying that rhetorically. If people were to go to Kent Institution 90 kilometres outside of Vancouver, they could walk into the CORCAN rooms, which are three big rooms that look like industrial arts labs in junior and senior high schools, and all they will find are storage rooms. They are empty.
The government has closed prison farms. We have had big debates, and I do not intend to open that debate again, but there were prison farms operating at four or five institutions in this country that were absolute models of success. They gave offenders a chance to learn soft skills, to get up in the morning and show up for work. They had responsibilities. The arguments I heard in the House about the closing of the farms were absurd, like those people would never find work on a farm. That is not the point of prison farms. The point of prison farms is to teach skills of responsibility, of working together, of having to show up at the same time every day, working with animals, for hardened people to emotionally reconnect and consider the feelings of other people and learn responsibility. They were very effective programs and the government closed the farms.
This bill is titled “the safe streets and communities act”. I think it should more aptly be called “the overcrowded prisons, no crime prevention and overburden taxpayers with no results act”. That is just as accurate a title as any other.
I want to talk a little about some of the pieces of Bill C-10. Part of this practice of governing that the Conservative Party has proven a predilection for is to take a whole bunch of unrelated bills and throw them into one great big conglomeration before the House, which is a very imprecise and ineffective way to govern because we then need disentangle all of the pieces, some of which are good, some of which are bad. I want to focus on some of the pieces of this.
I want to talk about the international transfer of offenders provision of the bill.
For many years, Canada has had a provision whereby Canadians who are convicted abroad have the opportunity to apply to serve their sentence in Canada. This is not done just because they want to. The host jurisdiction must agree, Canada must agree and the offender must agree.
There are criteria and the criteria are that they must satisfy the Canadian authorities that they are not able to access proper rehabilitation services in the country of origin, sometimes because no English or French is spoken, sometimes because there is no rehabilitation programs and sometimes if there is particularly compelling humanitarian and compassionate grounds. We all remember the fellow who was convicted with Conrad Black, his compatriot, who successfully applied and came back to Canada.
There is another important reason that the bill is important for public safety. If a Canadian in the United States finishes his or her sentence, the second after that sentence is completed the individual is deported back to Canada. The individual comes into our country and we have no record of him or her coming and we have no probation and no parole. We do not even know that the individual is in our community.
If the person is actually transferred back to Canada, however, and serves his or her sentence in Canada, we have a record of the sentence and we often will have parole conditions so that when the individual is released from jail we can impose conditions and monitor his or her re-entry into Canadian society. It is actually better for public safety and community safety to have this program.
This bill essentially would gut that program. It would allow the minister to have virtually unparalleled discretion to refuse such a request without any real kind of review. That is not good legislation.
I want to talk briefly about the pardon system.
The New Democrats, not last June but the one before, worked with the government to toughen our pardon system. We are the ones who proposed that we give the National Parole Board the power to deny a pardon in any case in which the administration of justice would be brought into disrepute. We added the provision that someone convicted of manslaughter would be prohibited from obtaining a pardon for 10 years whereas it was 5 years before.
Those are the provisions that would prevent Karla Homolka from getting a pardon, which, under the Conservative government's watch, was going to happen unless we did something. The New Democrats worked with the government to ensure that did not happen.
The government has now come forward with further pardon provisions that are simply unjustifiable. It wants to deny the ability of anybody with more than three convictions from ever in their entire life qualifying for a pardon. We heard evidence before our public safety committee from people in that situation, people who had four convictions or ten. We heard from one who had 26 convictions, and it sounded really bad.
The person with 26 convictions had a constructive story. He was a young executive who was recently married and bought a house and his wife developed leukemia and died. He went into depression and he started selling steroids for six months. Over the course of those six months, he engaged in selling steroids over the Internet. When he was convicted, he pled guilty. For every one transaction involving the sale of steroids, he had multiple convictions: possession, trafficking and there were offences because he was selling across the border. He is now an executive with Corus media. He appeared before our committee as a bright, rehabilitated, productive member of our society. This is the kind of person who would be prevented from getting a pardon under this legislation.
The “three strikes and you're out” approach that has been prevalent in places like California are being repealed in those jurisdictions because they have found that it has put a straitjacket on their justice system. That is not effective and it does not result in better community safety. It is also expensive.
The New Democrats are opposed to this because we want to create effective, strong, rational, fact-based policy that will likely result in safer communities, which, as I said at the beginning of my speech, is the goal of everybody in the House.
I would urge the government to listen to what the experts say, listen to what people across the justice system have to say, and not pursue a blind, ideological approach because it may be good wedge policies, but to actually work together with all members of the House to craft good policy to make our communities and our country safer for everyone.