Mr. Speaker, I adamantly oppose this bill, Bill C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration).
This bill aims to amend EI qualifying provisions to deny those found guilty of an offence access to employment insurance. Current provisions already allow for the qualification period to be extended if the claimant has spent fewer than two years incarcerated. Those incarcerated for fewer than two years are not hardened criminals. These are people who can be rehabilitated. When they are released from incarceration, they have paid their debt to society. If one thinks about it, incarceration is the penalty levied by the court.
Now the government wants to make them pay twice. I find it is a bit of an overkill. It is a bit cruel and punitive. Many of those incarcerated for fewer than two years are often incarcerated for “poverty related crimes”. For instance, approximately 40,000 Canadians are in provincial corrections facilities at any given time for failure to pay a fine. Imposing fines under provincial acts does not take into account people's ability to pay, and often leads to reoffending and doing more time for the same crime. It becomes a vicious cycle. People cannot afford to pay, so they go into jail, they lose their job, they come back out and they cannot afford to pay fines again.
Three per cent of all people in custody in provincial or territorial institutions, in 2008-09, were incarcerated for failure to pay a fine, women and first nations in particular. According to the 2011 National Council of Welfare report, The Dollars and Sense of Solving Poverty, 80% of incarcerated Canadian women are there for poverty related crimes; 39% of those for failure to pay a fine.
Seventy per cent of incarcerated women are single mothers struggling with the high cost of living and trying to feed their families. As a result, crimes of desperation are often committed. Many of them have families for whom they are the sole breadwinner. Many have absolutely no choice because they do not have the skills and education to find well-paying jobs.
The United Way of Calgary, in a report in 2008, called Crimes of Desperation, said that,“Incarcerating a woman for a poverty-related crime does punish her”. The report points out that the punishment is for being poor and trying to cope “by using a socially inappropriate but readily available means”. Such means would include stealing or doing whatever she needs to do to get some food on the table. The report suggests that, “Given this, the rates of re-offence are significant and costly”.
The hon. member for Cariboo—Prince George noted in committee that he does not understand how people cannot afford to pay a fine. I think this really only underscores a fact about how out of touch the government and the hon. member are with people who actually live in poverty and who commit crimes of desperation.
It is likely that these individuals, who already have limited incomes before they went into prison, have a hard time getting a job when they come out because of the stigma attached to being in jail. That is a double whammy for these people. Again, researchers found that ex-prisoners who are able to find legitimate jobs are less likely to reoffend than ex-prisoners who do not find jobs.
Employment insurance is not a perk. It is there to assist in the transition to employment. It is not a handout. EI is something one has to pay into in order to be eligible. We are therefore only speaking of people who are eligible who should have access to EI when they get out of prison. Without this insurance, these individuals may end up on welfare. I want to stress this: EI benefits are currently only payable to ex-prisoners upon their release if they are eligible.
This bill is a penalty on top of a court-ordered penalty. Our correctional institutions are not, as the government thinks, the answer to housing, mental illness, homelessness and addiction. They are rehabilitation centres, particularly for those offenders who are incarcerated for fewer than two years. If one believes prisoners can and should be rehabilitated to become positive contributors to our society, then one will agree that support programs both inside and outside the prison system will help them be able to live meaningful lives again.
Finding a legitimate productive job is one of the best ways to ensure an ex-prisoner does not reoffend because of poverty. EI is that bridge that helps them to get there.
I want to say that I oppose this bill. I think it is punitive and unnecessary. I am really sorry to see that it is even being discussed here in the House.