Mr. Speaker, members of Parliament will be engaging in a debate on Bill C-26 that is part of a process to codify aspects of punishment associated with sexual offences against children.
At the risk of being repetitive, I will draw from empirical evidence, namely from my personal experience at the legal aid clinic I joined in 2006 as an intern. I worked at the clinic in Sept-Îles for about two years. Since I was new to the office, I was often given the cases nobody else would touch with a ten-foot pole, if I can use that expression. These were big cases involving clients who were not always the nicest people. I was in criminal defence. I also handled mental health cases. I handled 400 cases in 2007—we had statistics at the legal aid clinic. It was a real boon to have those statistics every month, and our boss could come and talk to us about our performance. Anyway, in 2007, I handled 400 cases. As it happened, I ended up with several cases involving children, most of them young victims. Even a lawyer would find such clients difficult to like. It is hard to imagine what kind of experience would await them in a penal institution.
At the time, there were restrictions in place. There was a very strict framework that applied to crimes against the person involving victims of sexual acts—children in this case. I remember the first such case I handled. There was no way the accused could have served his sentence in the community. That was called a conditional sentence. By 2006 and 2007, there had been a codification, a change to the Criminal Code that prevented judges from sentencing people to serve time in the community. Sentencing was already getting harsher because that restriction was added.
Given the bill before us and its history, it is clear that sentences related to sexual crimes against children have gradually gotten harsher.
These offenders usually wound up in prison, depending on the severity of the alleged offences. This clientele invariably found themselves in protective custody. Protective custody simply means that they have to be separated from the general prison population because even inside the prison walls, they risk being assaulted. Word gets around among the other inmates, and those offenders are really unpopular. They are not accepted. One can imagine, then, how horrible those offenders are in the eyes of the general Canadian population. Basically, as I said, this clientele is unique, and the onus of proof is high. The cases were also unique. I had to ask for help from my articling supervisor at the time, and later from my boss, on those cases because the Crown was insistent, and more attention was given to those kinds of cases.
Considering the social stigmas associated with crimes committed against vulnerable victims, it is important to enact coercive measures that will adequately protect young people and communities. With those goals set out, it is important to apply a filter to the measures proposed by this government in order to prevent possible diversions from issues of identity for targeted political gain.
If this had never been brought to my attention, I would not be mentioning it here today. However, history has shown, as I have learned from being here for the past three years, that too often, bastions of identity and highly contentious issues are often seized upon and given lots of media attention.
It is unfortunate, but the Conservatives' trademark is “tough on crime”. There is even a copyright on it. This kind of measure, with harsher penalties, is meant to please a lobby group that has the government's ear. That is why this kind of issue and the debate around it usually become more about propaganda and electioneering. As I said earlier, this has been brought to my attention several times.
Given the specific subject matter in this case, we must ensure first and foremost that the goal behind implementing measures that are more draconian and harsher for the accused is not just to pander for votes, since this is about the people on the ground. I will come back to that.
It is the stakeholders, the paralegals, the crown prosecutors, and naturally the judges as well, who have to apply these harsher rules on the ground.
What is more, these undue measures are being imposed on them without necessarily a supporting budgetary envelope. Over the past few years, there has been a 6% increase in sexual assaults against children. It is not just the resources, including stakeholders on the ground and crown prosecutors, but also the social workers and paralegals who will have to deal with a larger clientele without necessarily getting more money to do so.
We got to this point because some people felt it was necessary to create hype around this issue, and went to great lengths to propose harsher sentences and codified measures, which, if I may say it, are nothing but smoke and mirrors.
Based on the findings concerning the dubious effectiveness of measures targeting sexual offences against children that have been brought forward since 2006, a review of the applicability and the hold of these measures on the work of judicial stakeholders must be undertaken in committee. There has to be a real study, so that we can try to see through all the hype and truly consider the impact on the people on the ground in order to understand the consequences and what the workers actually have to contend with.
I will go over how sentences and restrictions have gotten tougher since 2006.
The government is:
[Making it] illegal for anyone to provide sexually explicit material to a child for the purpose of facilitating the commission of an offence...
[Making it] illegal to use computers or other means of telecommunications to agree with or make arrangements with another person to commit a sexual offence against a child;
The sex offender registry has been strengthened; the age at which a young person can legally consent to sexual activity has been increased from 14 to 16 years of age. Those are a few specifics. There has been a definite trend to harden the rules and strengthen coercive measures.
Despite these clear changes, when he appeared before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights regarding the supplementary estimates, the Minister of Justice said that sexual offences against children had increased by 6% over the past two years. That is a rather large increase in recent years.
This finding raises a number of questions about what the actual impact of the proposed amendments will be and whether they will be adequate, enforceable and effective. Clearly, we are about to hit a wall since the number of such offences increased despite the tougher regulations that have been put in place since 2006.
Is there a connection? A correlation? I submit that for consideration. However, this should still be examined in committee. I want to bring up these questions today so that they can be meaningfully debated and so that experts and people on the ground can be heard.
Once again, it is the people on the ground or the front-line workers who will have to deal with these cases. As a result, they need to have their say about whether the proposed measures are enforceable.
Experts who have spoken out about the need to stop the sexual abuse of children have said that our communities need more human and financial resources in order to take a less repressive approach. There is always another way. Sometimes, we have to make sure that we are not wearing blinders.
For example, and I will close on this point, the statistics from the Circle of Support and Accountability program are impressive. That is an alternative. According to one study, the rate of sexual recidivism is 70% lower among those who participate in a Circle of Support and Accountability program.
Another study shows that this type of program reduces the rate of sexual recidivism by 83%. Those are promising statistics, which show that there could be another another approach to dealing with this problem. Such an approach would also help ensure that justice is served and victims are protected.
I submit this respectfully.