Mr. Speaker, before I start I believe it is my duty to inform you that I will be sharing my time with the member for Laurier—Sainte-Marie.
With that, I would also like to welcome everyone back from a long summer, where we hopefully had some time to sit back, rest with our family, recharge the batteries and of course help our constituents at the same time.
This afternoon I will be speaking to Bill C-37, which proposes to amend section 737 of Canada's Criminal Code in order to double the amount offenders must pay when they receive their sentence, while making the surcharge mandatory for all offenders.
First let me begin my comments by going through some of the history of victim surcharges before I proceed into why New Democrats believe this legislation merits passage at second reading and closer scrutiny at the justice committee, where I am hopeful all the necessary changes will be agreed to by all parties.
A victim surcharge is an additional sanction imposed at the time of sentencing to offenders found guilty of a crime. It is collected by provincial and territorial governments and used to provide programs and services for victims of crime in the province or territory where that crime was committed.
Specifically, Bill C-37 proposes to first amend the provisions of the Criminal Code relating to the amount of the victim surcharge, to double the amount. Under this proposal, the surcharge would be equivalent to 30% of any fine imposed on the offender or when no fine is imposed would be $100 for summary conviction offences and $200 for indictable offences.
The bill also removes the ability of a court to waive the victim surcharge if the offender can show that paying the surcharge would result in undue hardship to his or her dependents, for example. This is an important aspect of the bill, which deserves to be studied further as there are certainly cases where the imposition of the victim surcharge could indeed cause unnecessary hardship, while removing the ability of the judiciary to apply discretion is a troubling trend we are seeing across all the justice bills that the government has introduced.
Although judges' discretionary powers have been removed in terms of waiving the surcharge, under this bill as it is currently proposed judges would retain the discretionary power to increase the victim surcharge if they believe that circumstances so warrant and that the offender is able to pay. Therefore, on one hand, the bill removes the discretionary power of judges, while keeping some discretionary powers intact.
From my perspective, maintaining the discretionary power of the judiciary under both circumstances would seem to make sense as indeed there are many extenuating circumstances in which forcing an offender to pay the surcharge would have an unnecessarily harsh effect. When I mention this, I am particularly concerned about offenders who have a clear history of mental illness and may be unable to pay that surcharge. This is one aspect of the bill that has raised alarm bells for important organizations, like the Elizabeth Fry Society and the John Howard Society. This underscores the need for more intensive study of the component when the bill reaches the justice committee.
One positive aspect of the bill, which seems to offer respite for individuals as mentioned above, is the inclusion of a mechanism that allows offenders who are unable to pay the surcharge the opportunity to participate in a provincial fine option program, where these programs are in place. They allow offenders to pay their fines by earning work credits in the province or territory where the crime was committed. Ensuring that these programs are in place in all 13 jurisdictions across Canada seems necessary to ensure that it is possible to apply this provision equally and fairly to offenders, regardless of the province where they reside.
Another important piece of this proposal, which to my mind needs to be mentioned, is the fact that increasing the victim surcharge will have a direct impact on providing services to victims who would therefore directly benefit from increased victim surcharges. This is important to note because I have heard from victims within my community of Sudbury who have had difficulty accessing these services. An increase in the funding, which these programs receive, would certainly address some of the shortfalls that have been brought to my attention by both victims themselves and victims rights groups within my riding.
Let me sum up some of the remarks by mentioning the economic impact that crime has on communities right across our great country and how increasing the victim surcharge might act as a meaningful deterrent, particularly in cases of vandalism. According to statistics collected in 2003, crime costs Canadians around $70 billion on an annual basis. Of this, $47 billion was assumed by the victims, representing a total of 70%. We have heard some other statistics, such as 83%, and I am sure there are a few others other there, but it is still too high.
One local example of this economic impact should serve as an excellent example of why exploring the idea of increasing the surcharge is, in fact, beneficial, especially in cases involving small businesses forced to deal with senseless vandalism. Back in June in my great riding of Sudbury, the owners of Azian Cuisine were forced to pay out over $6,000 in cleanup costs, for a second time, to remove targeted graffiti, which has become a major problem for business owners across my riding.
Although increasing the victim surcharge would not directly address targeted acts of vandalism like this, if perpetrators of these crimes were aware that there was a mandatory monetary penalty in addition to any fines waiting for them, it may act as a deterrent against committing these acts in the future. It is also my hope that with increased moneys for victim programs, the provinces may in fact establish programs to assist small business owners, like those at Azian Cuisine in Sudbury, who are forced to deal with repeated acts of vandalism against their businesses.
Let me be clear. The NDP staunchly supports victims of crime and their families and respects the recommendations of the Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, and any assertions otherwise are utterly false.
With that being said, we continue to have concerns about this bill, which merits further study, discussion and witness testimony in committee, particularly regarding the decreased discretionary powers of judges to decide if paying a surcharge would cause undue hardship. We in the NDP believe in the importance of the discretionary powers of judges, and the autonomy of judges is restricted within this bill.
While the withdrawal of the undue hardship clause and the provisions seeking to double the surcharge amount could be problematic for low-income offenders, this is offset by the fact that this bill provides people with the option of paying their fines by working for the provincial fine option program. I support having this balance studied further in committee hearings in order to ensure that it is indeed appropriate, especially for provinces and territories where this program is not yet in place.
With that, I look forward to questions.