Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak on Bill C-483, an act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act with respect to escorted temporary absence. The bill has been brought forward by the member for Oxford, I think with very good intentions, but as is often the case, I have many reservations about these kinds of private members' bills.
My first concern is that the bill is part of a pattern we have seen in this Parliament of the introduction of bills that more properly ought to be government bills. Government bills differ from private members' bills in many ways. One of those is in how much scrutiny and how much debate they receive in the House. An even more important way they differ is in the kind of scrutiny they receive before they even arrive in the House. Therefore, as a private member's bill, Bill C-483 escapes any scrutiny with regard to its conformity with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
My concern here is not just about the protection of fundamental freedoms, although I do have that concern, but it is also about the stability and certainty we need in our legal system if we want to make sure that the rule of law can actually function. If we pass measures that are likely to be eventually overturned in the courts, or even if the outcome of this measure is endless litigation, then we add a significant challenge to our legal system. How can people know what the law is? How can even defence attorneys or prosecutors be certain that the actions they are taking will actually end up being upheld in court? Without that kind of scrutiny, when something comes forward as a private member's bill, we risk creating instability in the legal system over the long term.
My second concern is that we have had a large number of private members' bills introduced, which were actually government bills masquerading as private members' bills, and they all sought to amend the Criminal Code and/or the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, piecemeal. What we have is a number of different bills making a number of different changes to a very complex Criminal Code and a very complex Corrections and Conditional Release Act. Therefore, quite apart from the dangers of inadvertently adopting contradictory provisions as we deal with these bills, we have another problem. We have a certain danger that we will adopt changes to the Criminal Code or the Corrections and Conditional Release Act without waiting to see the results of the preceding bills that we have already adopted. We have not even seen what has happened or what is going to happen with some of the changes we have already made, and now we are changing the bills yet again. It raises a problem with rule of law. It raises a problem with knowing the certain consequences of what we are doing here in the House.
My third concern is that the ideas for these Conservative private members' bills are often ripped from sensational headlines. They are based on cases that, by their nature, outrage or concern the public and all of us. They forget that these cases, which are so outrageous and sensational, are often news precisely because they depart from the norm, because they are outrageous and unusual.
Therefore, in attempting to fix the law based on the exceptions that are represented by these extreme cases, we do run the risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water. We may have some things that are operating, as in the case of escorted temporary absences, with a 99% success rate, so we focus on the 1%. These cases are tragic and probably could have been prevented through some other means, but we throw out the whole system, which has been working very well to help rehabilitate people and get them back into society successfully.
I acknowledge that the bill does attempt to address two real concerns. One is the sensitivity of the families of victims of murder when they see someone who has been convicted of this very serious crime released from custody, even if only on a temporary basis. That is something we are sensitive to on this side of the House. It is something we feel needs to be addressed.
The other concern that is real is the safety of escorted temporary absences, both for the public and for corrections staff. The bill, unfortunately, does not really address that concern in its provisions.
For those reasons, New Democrats will be supporting Bill C-483 at second reading. There are legitimate concerns here and we think that in committee we can find the right measures to address these concerns. What we have to do is make sure we do not confuse escorted temporary absences with parole. On the other side, there is an unfortunate tendency to use a phrase that describes escorted temporary absences as “parole by the back door”. The previous minister was very fond of talking about this. Escorted temporary absences are not a form of parole. They are a way in which we test whether offenders are ready for staged and supervised reintegration into the community.
The way we find out whether they handle increased freedom and the way we can find out how they react to being out of custody is through escorted temporary absences when there is someone with them to observe and prevent the negative consequences that might occur. As I said, it is about the staged and supervised reintegration into society that is the real purpose of escorted temporary absences.
This leads me to something the member for Oxford did not mention, which is public safety. He talked about victims quite sincerely, and I believe that. I share that concern, but there is another concern here about not having future victims. We need to have a corrections system that functions to ensure we reintegrate people into society and we do not create problems for other families in the future.
There is a wide range of reasons why escorted and unescorted temporary absences are granted to those in custody. This bill would not affect most of those, but it is important to note how these temporary absences are used. They are often used for rehabilitation programs, including drug and alcohol treatment which is not available in the institution the person is in. This is a particular concern with the very large number of people that we have in our prisons with alcohol and drug addictions.
The temporary absences are also used for significant family events, like terminal illnesses or funerals. They are also used for interesting things that people might not think about, like job interviews for positions after release from prison. If we want people successfully reintegrated into society and they are in prison, how can they get a job? An escorted temporary absence to a job interview might be an important part of that reintegration into society.
Sometimes the absences are used for training that is not available in prisons. When people get out, they need skills to earn a living, support themselves and not be a further burden on the public. Sometimes these temporary absences are in structured situations where people get the training they need. Again, this is very important to public safety after they get out of prison.
There are a wide variety of legitimate reasons which, in fact, contribute to public safety and prevent future victimization by preparing inmates for more successful reintegration into all of our communities upon their release.
What am I worried about in the bill? I am worried about the proposed solution. It is not the concerns. As I have said, we share those concerns. However, as I asked the member for Oxford earlier about the proposed solution, can the Parole Board actually deal with each and every application for an escorted temporary absence from nearly 3,000 inmates in custody at the present time? Do we have the personnel to do this? Do we have the financial resources?
The Parole Board, as I mentioned in my question, now has a backlog of 20,000 pardon applications. It has said that it will not clear these applications until the end of 2015. It has had to hire 1,000 temporary workers to try to attack the problem of pardons.
Why are pardons important? Pardons are important because they are the way that people can get employment after they have completed their sentences and want to be reintegrated into the community. That pardon part, of course, does not apply to those convicted of murder. There is no such thing in Canada. Life in Canada actually means life under supervision.
The Parole Board is already dealing with these other applications and it has had its budget cut by $3 million in this current fiscal year.
It is important to remember that the Correctional Service of Canada reports that 99% of temporary absences are completed successfully.
There was a letter published in the Montreal Gazette in July, when this bill was introduced, written by Peter Huish, who is the Chaplain-Coordinator of the Montreal area. He is the person who organizes work with those who are being released from prison and he has a very intimate knowledge of what happens with both escorted and unescorted temporary absences. In his letter, he emphasized the “significant contributions to effective eventual parole” that escorted and unescorted temporary absences play in our system. This is someone who works with offenders every day, in and out. He also emphasizes that the vast majority, in fact almost all, of these are successfully completed.
What do we need to ensure that the small number are successfully completed? The corrections system needs more resources for the security reviews that the wardens rely on before making those decisions.
What do need to ensure that those escorted temporary absences are safe for the public and the corrections staff? We have had a reduction of resources, meaning that many times, an offender who would need two people on the escorted absence, because of the complexity of the absence or travel involved, is instead escorted by a single corrections officer. Therefore, it is a question of resources in the corrections system that would take care of most of the security.
We on this side do share the concerns that families of victims have about escorted temporary absences. We share the concerns that corrections officials have about single accompaniment in these absences. In committee, we will be proposing that this bill be amended significantly. We need to hear from victims. We need to hear from those who work with offenders.
We believe a solution may be found in having the Parole Board make the initial determination on whether an offender is eligible for temporary absences, then leaving the specific decisions on individual absences to the wardens. This would allow victims to be heard in the parole system, as the member for Oxford suggested. I hope he is willing to consider that this may be the solution to the problem he is trying to solve without placing that undue burden on the Parole Board and without inadvertently eliminating an important part of our system, which helps reintegrate prisoners into society.