Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to be in the House today to talk about the important changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act that are included in the Safe Streets and Communities Act.
Since coming to power in 2006, our government has been working hard to ensure that Canadians can feel safe and secure in their communities. A key part of this ongoing work has focused on improvements to our youth criminal justice system. In particular, the government is taking action to strengthen the ways in which the system deals with serious, repeat and violent young offenders. My remarks today will focus on some of the key proposals that address those concerns.
First, the proposed amendments ensure that protection of society remains a key goal of the youth criminal justice system.
While the principles of the youth criminal justice system currently identify the long-term protection of the public as an objective of the act, the bill before us would make it clear that the youth criminal justice system is intended to protect the public by holding young offenders accountable, by promoting their rehabilitation and reintegration into society, and by preventing crime by addressing the circumstances underlying their offending behaviour.
A youth justice system that fails to protect society fails Canadians. Canadians have the right to be protected from crime, including youth crime, and the Government of Canada is committed to achieving that goal.
During our committee hearings on the former Bill C-4, some witnesses expressed the view that this change to the principles of the Youth Criminal Justice Act would move us toward a more punitive youth justice system and away from a system that emphasizes rehabilitation and reintegration.
In fact, if members look at the full statement of principles in the amendment, it is clear that this is simply not the case. Indeed, the proposed amendment specifically states that rehabilitation, reintegration and crime prevention are key to the protection of society.
Furthermore, the bill also proposes amending the principles of the Youth Criminal Justice Act by adding a fundamental principle of justice already articulated by the Supreme Court of Canada, namely that the youth criminal justice system must be based on the principle of diminished moral blameworthiness or diminished culpability.
Therefore, the proposed changes to the principles reflect a balanced approach that, together with the preservation of the existing principles, will guide those working within the youth criminal justice system to respond to youth in a more effective manner.
The proposed amendments also make important changes to the principles of sentencing in the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The amendments add specific deterrence and denunciation as principles to guide a judge in sentencing young offenders. Right now, deterrence and denunciation are not even included as objectives in youth sentencing decisions, even though many Canadians believe that young offenders' sentences should be designed to deter further offending and to send a message to that particular young offender before the court that criminal behaviour is simply not acceptable.
However, the proposed amendment would also make it very clear that a sentence must still be proportionate to the seriousness of the offence and to the degree of responsibility of the young person for that offence. That means, for example, that judges will not be able to give a young offender an extra-long sentence just to send a message to other youth that the unlawful behaviour was wrong.
Once again, in my view these changes, taken together with the existing principles of sentencing in the Youth Criminal Justice Act, represent a balanced approach that will allow courts to respond to youth crime in an appropriate and effective way.
The package of reforms also includes several significant changes to the definition sections of the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The amended act would define “serious offence” as any indictable offence that carries a maximum penalty in the Criminal Code or in another act of Parliament of five years or more.
This definition includes both property offences, such as auto theft and theft over $5,000, and violent offences, such as common assault, sexual assault and robbery.
Right now there is no definition of “serious offence” in the Youth Criminal Justice Act. This new definition will have important implications for pretrial detention, and I will touch on them in a few moments.
The amendments also expand the meaning of “violent offence” under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
The current scope of “violent offence” under the act was interpreted by the Supreme Court of Canada as including offences in which a young offender causes or attempts to cause or threatens to cause bodily harm, but not to include other offences that endanger someone's life or safety. An example is dangerous driving.
The proposed definition includes offences in which a young person actually endangers the life or safety of another person by creating the substantial likelihood of causing bodily harm. This new definition would have application in a number of areas, including the imposition of custodial sentences and the lifting of publication bans.
The proposed amendments to the Youth Criminal Justice Act modify the restrictions on the use of custody as a youth sentencing measure. Apart from exceptional cases, currently a court cannot impose a custodial sentence on a young offender unless that young offender has committed a violent offence, failed to comply with previous non-custodial sentences, or committed an indictable offence for which an adult would be liable to imprisonment for a term of more than two years, and also has a history that demonstrates a pattern of findings of guilt.
The proposed amendment pertains to the third circumstance, namely to cases in which a young offender has committed a non-violent indictable offence for which an adult is liable to more than two years in prison. The amendment would simply allow and give discretion to a judge to impose a custodial sentence in such a case if the youth's history demonstrated a pattern of findings of guilt or of extrajudicial sanctions or both.
This means that custody could be an option for a young offender who has been found guilty of a non-violent offence and who has in the past engaged in criminal behaviour for which the youth has admitted responsibility, but which was dealt with through extrajudicial sanctions. This simply allows the court to take the youth's full history into account to help determine the appropriate sentence.
The bill also creates a requirement that records be kept when extrajudicial measures are used by law enforcement, which will make it easier to find patterns of repeated reoffending that the police and others may take into account in deciding on appropriate interventions, such as whether to use another extrajudicial measure or proceed through the courts.
Changes to the publication provisions in the Youth Criminal Justice Act are also contained in this package of reforms. Currently the identity of a young offender is protected, and identifying information can be published only in limited circumstances; for example, the publication ban is automatically lifted if a youth receives an adult sentence. The publication ban could also be lifted by the judge in cases in which a youth has received a youth sentence for an offence that falls within a very narrow category of the most serious violent offences.
The new law requires judges simply to consider lifting publication bans whenever a youth sentence is imposed on a youth found guilty of a violent offence. The publication ban could be lifted, but only if the judge finds that the young person poses a significant risk of committing another violent offence and only if the lifting of the ban is necessary to protect the public. It will always be up to the prosecution to convince the judge that lifting the ban is necessary.
As the title of the bill indicates, the amendments to the Youth Criminal Justice Act contained in the safe streets and communities act would make violent and repeat young offenders more accountable for their actions and better protect Canadians. This is what Canadians expect of their youth justice system, and it is an important priority for our government.
I ask all members of the House to join together with me and the government to focus on the concerns common to all Canadians.