Mr. Speaker, under section 737 of the Criminal Code, a judge may impose a victim surcharge on a person found guilty of a criminal offence. Specifically, this is an amount of money that accompanies any other punishment and is determined by the lower of the following amounts: 15% of any fine imposed, or, if no fine is imposed, $50 in the case of an offence punishable by summary conviction and $100 in the case of an offence punishable by indictment. Furthermore, the Criminal Code allows the judge the discretionary power not only to order an offender to pay an amount exceeding that amount “if the court...is satisfied that the offender is able to pay“, but also to make sure that the offender is able to pay the surcharge.
Our criminal legislation goes further in allowing the offender the opportunity to establish that the additional payment of the victim surcharge would cause undue hardship. The judge can then exempt the offender from the victim surcharge.
The victim surcharge is imposed in addition to any other punishment for an offender convicted or discharged of a Criminal Code offence or an offence under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. It is a sanction that is principally directed at the offender's assets. The money is paid to the provinces and territories so that they can fund assistance to victims of crime.
Given that the victim surcharge is a penalty, it must be effective and it must reflect the traditional objectives expected of penalties: to dissuade, to deter, to provide redress and reparation, and to rehabilitate. In other words, Canadian legislation has, in a way, assigned three classic functions to the penalties provided for in the Criminal Code: those functions are prevention, reparation and redress.
The NDP supports Bill C-37, the intent of which is to amend the provisions of the Criminal Code dealing with victim surcharges in order to double the amount that offenders will be required to pay when they are sentenced, and to make the surcharge mandatory for all offenders.
More specifically, under Bill C-37, the surcharge would increase to 30% of any fine imposed, or, if no fine is imposed, it would go from $50 to $100 for a summary conviction offence. It would also go from $100 to $200 in the case of an offence punishable by indictment.
Bill C-37 makes other amendments to the Criminal Code by repealing the provision that gives the court the flexibility to waive the victim surcharge if offenders establish that paying it would cause them or their dependents undue and unreasonable hardship.
The bill preserves the discretionary power that judges have under the current legislation to increase the amount of the victim surcharge if they believe that the circumstances warrant it and the offender has the ability to pay.
Bill C-37 takes into account the fact that some members of the community may not be able to pay the surcharge because of difficult social conditions, so it gives them an alternative: participating in a provincial fine option program, where such programs exist.
Fine option programs allow the offender to pay a fine by earning credits for work done in the province or territory where the crime was committed.
The purpose of the proposed increase set out in Bill C-37 is to have a more meaningful impact on the personal wealth of potential criminals by connecting their actions to the costs incurred by the government in helping victims cope with the consequences of the terrible acts they commit.
The NDP supported several of the recommendations made by the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, including this one, and is also in favour of enhanced funding for programs for victims of crime.
Indirectly, this bill will satisfy a number of the recommendations made by the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, who for years has been arguing in favour of an automatic surcharge and better funding for programs for victims of crime.
Crime puts a major strain on government resources. It also puts a strain on the limited resources of Canadian taxpayers.
In 2003, crime cost about $70 billion. Victims of crime bore $47 billion or 70% of that total cost.
In 2004, studies estimated the compensation paid to victims for pain and suffering at $36 billion. That amount does not include the compensation that a significant number of eligible victims do not claim because they are not familiar with the legislation.
On a number of occasions, the Elizabeth Fry Society has also expressed its deep concerns about the bill and about the impact of additional fines on disadvantaged people who cannot afford to pay.
The John Howard Society said that it does not necessarily have a problem with the fines, but that it is afraid that, under this system, fines might end up being disproportionate to the crimes.
The NDP is in favour of Bill C-37 as far as the benefits mentioned earlier go. However, they have some concerns about the bill and hope that the necessary improvements will be made once it is studied in committee.
In the meantime, I would like to talk about the proposal to remove judicial discretion under Bill C-37. That is unacceptable since the discretionary power is very much part of a judge's role. Removing it from judges means undermining the independent nature of the judiciary, which allows judges to hear all sides of the story and to take a stand based on what they know and according to their conscience.
Judges have sovereignty to weigh the facts before them and to make a ruling one way or another. We have a problem with removing judicial discretion when it comes to the surcharge.
The NDP recognizes the paramount importance of the autonomy of judges and will not be able to support the amendment that proposes to restrict judicial discretion. Judges must have that power to be able to perform their duties free from pressures of any kind.
We in the NDP also have some reservations about the proposal to remove the undue hardship clause, considering the negative impact this could have on low-income people. The same is true for the proposal to double the amount. For people who have low incomes, the bill should include a provision to allow judges to waive the surcharge. The law cannot blindly punish people. It must take into account the particular circumstances of the victim, otherwise it would be unfair.
The Conservatives and the NDP have different views of justice. This bill is based on one of the Conservatives' campaign promises in the last election, that they would double the amount paid to victims and make the surcharge mandatory in all cases, with no exceptions, in order to make offenders more accountable to victims of crime.
The NDP, which is appealing for a justice system that is more conscious of the specific needs of young offenders and the need to rehabilitate criminals, opposes any justice reforms that appear to be motivated by a law and order ideology and that do not take into account the specific circumstances of each offender.
I cannot conclude my speech without pointing out the overlap that exists between BIll C-37 and private member's Bill C-350, which also aims to make offenders more accountable to victims. How will these two bill affect one another?
The NDP supports victims of crime and their families and respects the recommendations of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime. Although we support the principle of Bill C-37, the NDP would like it to be debated further in order to improve it overall.