Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate at second reading of Bill C-37, the Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act, concerning victim surcharges.
Bill C-37 would make offenders more accountable by doubling victim surcharges for offenders and by ensuring that surcharges are applied automatically in all cases.
Clearly, the Conservative government is keeping its promises with respect to the concerns of victims of crime.
I am pleased to be here today to speak on Bill C-37, Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act. The bill would make convicted offenders more accountable to victims of crime by doubling the victim surcharge that offenders must pay and ensure that the surcharge is automatically applied in all cases.
The underlying philosophy of the federal victim surcharge in subsection 737(7) of the Criminal Code is that the surcharge is imposed for the purpose of providing assistance to victims of offences. As I will explain, surcharge revenues fund a wide variety of programs and services to assist victims of crime.
Our government, in its electoral platform, committed to amending the Criminal Code to double the victim surcharge and make it mandatory in every case, without exception. The Speech from the Throne reiterated this commitment.
The victim surcharge was first enacted in 1989, and at that time it was called a victim fine surcharge. The surcharge was set as a maximum amount, and in many cases very low amounts were imposed. Research was conducted by the Department of Justice in the early 1990s in British Columbia and Ontario to review the impact of the new surcharge provisions at the time. The research reports revealed that in many cases the imposition of the surcharge was ignored or forgotten, particularly where the disposition was something other than a fine. In situations were a jail term was imposed, judges often relied on the undue hardship provision to waive imposition.
In addition, the imposition of the surcharge where a term of imprisonment or other non-fine disposition was imposed was criticized as disproportionate to the gravity of the offence. Another reason cited explaining the lack of acceptance of the surcharge included the perception that surcharge revenue would be deposited into general revenues with no guarantee that existing services for victims would be expanded or new services developed.
In summary, the low revenue from the federal surcharge was attributed to a few key factors, including lack of awareness, concerns regarding the use of surcharge revenue and some lack of clarity in the amount set out in the code.
In 1998, the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights tabled a report entitled, “Victims' Rights - A voice, not a veto”, following its review of the victim's role in the criminal justice system. The committee noted the problems with the original surcharge provisions, including the inadvertent failure of judges to impose the surcharge and non-aggressive enforcement and collection initiatives. The report affirmed that additional resources were needed to provide adequate victim services across the country and that increasing the victim surcharge would be a reasonable way to generate more revenue, particularly given that the maximum surcharge amounts had not increased since 1989.
In 2000, two amendments were made to the surcharge provision. The surcharge became a fixed amount and became automatic unless the judge ordered a waiver because of undue hardship to the offender. The term “fine” was also dropped to avoid the interpretation that it was only applied in addition to fines.
In 2006, the Department of Justice published the “Federal Victim Surcharge in New Brunswick: An Operational Review”. The objective of this research project was to develop a better understanding of the challenges and possible solutions to the federal victim surcharge regime in the province of New Brunswick, to identify challenges that are present in the current process and to generate possible solutions to circumvent impediments in maximizing the effectiveness of this process.
Despite the fact that imposition of the surcharge is supposed to be automatic unless the offender can convince the sentencing judge that it would cause undue hardship, the victim surcharge is not being applied in cases even where the offender would have the ability to pay. The research has shown that the victim surcharge is not being applied in all appropriate cases for several reasons, including, as previously noted, a presumption that an offender who is sentenced to jail time will not have the means to pay, and a lack of awareness of how the money from the victim surcharge is used. Under the current victim surcharge regime, offenders who are not able to pay the victim surcharge without incurring hardship are simply exempted from making the payment. This bill would address many of these issues.
The amount of the victim surcharge has not been increased since 2000. The new proposed surcharge would be 30% of any fine imposed on the offender. Where no fine is imposed, the surcharge would be $100 for offences punishable by summary conviction and $200 for offences punishable by indictment. In addition, the judge would retain the discretion to impose an increased surcharge where the circumstances warrant and the offender has the ability to pay.
As the surcharge money is used by the provincial or territorial government where the crime occurred to help fund their services to victims of crime, raising the victim surcharge amounts will benefit victims of crime in general and make offenders more accountable.
As I noted earlier, under the current law, sentencing judges have discretion to waive the victim surcharge when it can be demonstrated that its payment will cause undue hardship to the offender, or his or her dependents. This bill would remove the waiver option to ensure that the victim surcharge is applied in all cases, without exception.
Because failure to pay a surcharge could ultimately result in an offender being incarcerated, the Criminal Code would also be amended to allow offenders who are unable to pay the surcharge to participate, where such programs exist, in a provincial fine option program. This would allow an offender to satisfy the payment of the surcharge by earning credits for work performed in the province or territory where the crime was committed.
The surcharge amendments will result in an increase in services and assistance in all provinces and territories for victims of crime. All of the money paid to the victim surcharge is collected and retained by the provincial and territorial governments. The surcharge is put into a provincial or territorial fund, usually called a victims fund. The money is used to help fund programs, services and assistance to victims of crime in the province or territory where the crime occurred.
Most provinces and territories have also enacted their own legislation to impose a surcharge on provincial and territorial offences. Revenue from such provincial or territorial surcharges is also deposited in a special victims fund along with the federal surcharge revenue and is used to provide services directly to victims.
The imposition of a provincial or territorial surcharge is automatic. In other words, it is added to the fine imposed for the provincial or territorial offence. Payment is usually enforced by the non-renewal of licences. For example, a parking ticket will include the surcharge amount, and the payer is obligated to pay the whole amount or risk not having their driver's licence or other permits renewed or issued.
As I noted earlier, raising awareness among criminal justice system personnel about the benefits of the surcharge is challenging. It is often regarded as simply another tax to raise money for unknown benefits. The Criminal Code clearly requires that the revenue be used to provide assistance to victims of crime. Provincial and territorial victim legislation has the same requirement for surcharge revenue.
If anyone doubts the need for victim services and the need for this revenue to be used to support such services, let me spend a few moments providing some concrete examples of how this revenue can be and is used. Surcharge revenue may be used to provide direct services to victims of crime, such as information on the criminal justice system and court processes, referrals for counselling to assist victims in dealing with the trauma of being victimized, court preparation, court support for vulnerable persons, assistance in preparing victim impact statements, victim notification of offender release from provincial institutions, victim notification of reviews and outcomes in cases where the accused has been found not criminally responsible, and compensation programs for victims of crime.
I could provide a coast-to-coast view of victim services, but the following examples will provide a good sample.
New Brunswick has victim service coordinators in 15 offices, who are responsible for direct service programs. The New Brunswick victim services program offers a court-based victim/witness assistance and court-support program. Coordinators assist victims of crime through the provision of a number of services, including providing direct support in crisis situations, completing safety assessments for domestic violence cases, liaising with police and other community agencies providing victim services to ensure a continuum of care and, since 2007, specialized victim services for the pilot domestic violence court. Surcharge revenues also provide funding for the New Brunswick trauma counselling program, which is available to assist victims of crime in dealing with the therapeutic needs arising from the criminal offence or the trauma of disclosure that often impedes victims from testifying in court. The New Brunswick court-support program is another example of programs funded by provincial and federal surcharges.
In Ontario, surcharge revenue funds a wide range of services provided to victims of crime. There are 39 sexual assault and rape crisis centres, including centres that provide French-language services. They provide a 24-hour crisis and support line; group and one-on-one counselling; accompaniment to hospital, court or police; information and referral services; and public awareness sessions. The Ontario victim crisis assistance and referral services provide short-term assistance on a 24/7 basis to victims at the scene of a crime and make referrals to community services for longer-term assistance. With the consent of the victim, the police can call a highly trained team of volunteers to the scene. More than 50 victim crisis assistance and referral services sites are located throughout Ontario to deliver the victim quick response program. Surcharge revenues help to fund the Ontario victim support line, which provides a province-wide, toll-free information line in English and French. Surcharge revenues also fund the Ontario child witness project, which provides specialized preparation and support to child victims and/or witnesses and their caregivers. They work closely with the victim/witness assistance programs in their communities.
Revenue from the surcharge is put to good use in Saskatchewan where the Victim Services Branch directly delivers several programs including: the victims compensation program to provide payment for reasonable expenses resulting from violent crimes; the restitution program to increase the amount of restitution collected from adult offenders and paid to victims in a timely manner; and victim/witness service programs to assist children and other vulnerable witnesses who are required to testify in court. The surcharge revenue also makes it possible for the Saskatchewan Victim Services Branch to support community agencies and municipal police services to assist victims of crime. For example, there are 18 police-based victim service programs to provide support, information and referrals to victims of crime and tragedy. There are six aboriginal resource officer programs that work with local police-based victim services programs to assist aboriginal victims and their families. There are seven aboriginal family violence programs, and there are eight "children who witness violence" programs, which work to assist children and help prevent them from entering the cycle of violence as victims and offenders.
These examples demonstrate concretely how surcharge revenue is used by provinces and territories to fund victim services and why it is so important.
While the goal of this bill is to ensure the accountability of offenders to victims by strengthening the victim surcharge provisions in order to provide more resources for victim services, the reality is that some offenders will never be able to pay the surcharge. In light of this, members may question how the goals of the surcharge can be accomplished.
Allowing offenders who are not able to pay the victim surcharge to participate in fine option programs is consistent with the goals of this legislation, because working off the surcharge would remind offenders of the harm that their actions have done to their particular victim, to all victims of crime and to the larger community. The fine option program within each province or territory determines the rate at which credits are earned for the work performed by the offender. For example, if the provincial or territorial fine option program determines that one hour of work equals $10, the offender would need to work 10 hours to pay a $100 surcharge penalty or 20 hours to pay a $200 surcharge penalty.
In Manitoba, for instance, the fine option program provides that a person who has been fined can register at a local community resource centre and will be assigned community work. Centres are located throughout the province and at several sites in Winnipeg. They determine the number of hours of work needed at the Manitoba minimum wage rate to pay the fine and assign and monitor the work to its completion. Work may include repairs or maintenance to churches, schools, halls, seniors residences, parks and other community sites. Failure to complete the assigned task would result in a warrant being issued.
The introduction of the bill builds on the government's previous actions to ensure that victims of crime have a greater voice in the criminal justice system and more access to available services.
In 2007, the government announced the federal victims strategy and committed $52 million over four years to respond to the needs of victims of crime. This funding was renewed at $13 million per year in 2011.
We created the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime to provide victims with information regarding programs and services available from federal organizations and statutes. The office works to ensure the needs and concerns of victims are taken into account by federal corrections institutions and identifies important issues and trends that may negatively impact victims of crime.
In her recent special report, “Shifting the Conversation”, the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime recommended that payment of the victim surcharge be made automatic. Other victims advocates have made that same recommendation.
Our government has a strong track record of responding to the legitimate concerns of victims. These responses have included a range of criminal law reforms to improve public safety and make offenders more accountable.
For example, the Safe Streets and Communities Act includes important changes strongly supported by victims of crime, such as increasing penalties for sexual offences against children, as well as creating two new offences aimed at conduct that could facilitate or enable the commission of a sexual offence against a child; imposing tougher sentences for serious drug offences; eliminating the use of conditional sentences or house arrest for serious and violent crimes; enshrining a victim's right to participate in parole hearings and enhancing inmate accountability, responsibility and management under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act; extending the ineligibility periods for applications for record suspension, previously called a pardon, to five years for summary conviction offences and to ten years for indictable offences; and allowing victims of terrorism to sue perpetrators and supporters of terrorism, including listed foreign states, for loss or damage that occurred as a result of an act of terrorism committed anywhere in the world.
These changes reflect concerns we have heard from victims and victims' advocates and, indeed, from Canadians of all walks of life.
When our government came to power in 2006, we told Canadians that we would work hard to make our streets and communities safer by addressing the needs of victims. We sought to ensure that victims voices were heard. We wanted to increase offender accountability. I am very proud of the progress this government has made in improving how victims participate in the corrections and criminal justice system in a meaningful way.
The amendments to the Criminal Code proposed in the bill continue that important work. The victim surcharge would directly benefit victims of crime and make offenders more accountable for their actions.
I urge all honourable members of the House to support this bill because we have to make opportunities available to victims of crime in order to support their recovery.
I urge all members of this House to support the bill and to refer it to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights for study.