Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak in support of Bill C-235, an act to amend the Criminal Code and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (fetal alcohol disorder).
Alcohol is one of the most toxic substances we humans consume. Unfortunately, in pregnancy, it crosses the placenta and disrupts the fetal development. As a result, some children are born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD.
FASD was first identified a little more than 40 years ago when a similar pattern of malformations was discovered in children, but the disorder goes way beyond the physical. Individuals affected by FASD may have trouble with memory, attention, self-care, decision-making and social skills, and may also suffer from mental health disorders such as depression, addiction, and difficulty controlling their emotions. They may also have problems with organization and planning daily activities, controlling their emotions and completing tasks, which would allow them to lead productive lives.
Circumstances such as these often lead these individuals into trouble with the law and create further issues once they are incarcerated. The consequences associated with FASD are widespread. They may affect the child, the families, and the communities they reside in.
To give everyone a better picture of the prevalence of FASD in Canada, this disorder affects nearly one in 100 children. Some Canadian data indicates greater prevalence of FASD in children in rural communities, the foster care systems, the juvenile justice systems, and aboriginal populations.
This higher prevalence of FASD found in aboriginal children is often linked to historical and multi-generational trauma. Research and data on the consequences of FASD have grown in the past decades, and programs are being implemented to prevent the disorder and address the special circumstances and the difficulties people are suffering from FASD.
However, it is time to address FASD in the criminal justice system. In fact, in its calls to action, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called upon the Government of Canada and the provincial and territorial governments to undertake reform of the criminal justice system to address the needs of offenders suffering from FASD.
That said, let us get to the reasons why the bill is important. As my colleague, the hon. member for Yukon, mentioned, the bill seeks to do a number of things. First, it seeks to define FASD. Second, the bill would give a court the right to order FASD assessments where it has reasonable grounds to believe an offender may be suffering from the disorder and that FASD could have had an impact on the offence committed. Third, the bill would give the court discretion to consider FASD as a mitigating factor when handing down a sentence. Fourth, when a person with FASD is released, they would have an external support plan.
It is important to understand that the goal of the bill is not to consider FASD as an excuse for bad behaviour. When a person breaks the law, it is important that this person be held to account. Why it is important to give the court the ability to order FASD assessments where it has reasonable grounds to believe an offender may be affected by the disorder is that not all cases of FASD are physically recognizable, and not all individuals affected by FASD are diagnosed early in life. They may only discover they have FASD once they enter the criminal justice system. It is essential that screening for FASD take place within the criminal justice system to better address the needs of those individuals affected by this disorder. The earlier we are able to identify offenders with FASD, the more we will be able to avoid more serious crimes being committed in the future, and the more we will be able to manage these individuals when they are incarcerated.
Then comes the question, why is it important to consider FASD as a mitigating factor in the sentencing process? When a person breaks the law, it is important that this person be held to account, but it is also important to consider the greater picture and to look at the explanation of the person's behaviour.
As I mentioned earlier, people with FASD may suffer from an array of symptoms, such as a lack of understanding of the consequences of their actions, making them more prone to trouble with the law.
We need to understand that these individuals are born with a development disorder due to exposure to alcohol before they were even born. We need to recognize that they are victims of a disorder. It therefore becomes all about creating a balance between recognizing the effects of this disorder on offenders and the need to hold people accountable for their actions. This bill would give the courts the power to do this.
Health Canada estimates that as many as nine in every 1,000 babies born in Canada have a disability on the FASD spectrum. The effects of this are a lifelong array of mental and physical disabilities, including difficulty understanding the consequence of their actions. As a result, many of the victims of FASD end up in Canada's justice system and prisons. Data suggests that between 10% and 23% of inmates in our prisons have FASD.
The Canadian Bar Association, the organization representing Canada's legal professionals, agrees that this is too many people and has indicated its support for Bill C-235. It feels that an unfair number of people with FASD are being prosecuted by the legal system. Here is a quote directly from a CBA letter, which all members should have received this week from the member for Yukon. It states:
We believe that Bill C-235 is an important step in addressing some of the shortcomings of the current framework....
Bill C-235 advances several changes, in line with previous suggestions made by CBA. The CBA supports the proposed amendment to define FASD in section 2 of the Criminal Code. The CBA also supports an amendment to allow a judge to order an assessment of someone they suspect has FASD. We believe this would assist courts in handing out more appropriate dispositions to people with FASD. The CBA supports amending the sentencing provisions in section 718.2 of the Criminal Code to allow a judge to consider evidence that an offender has FASD as a mitigating factor on sentencing. We also appreciate the section that would require judges to include, as a condition of probation, compliance with an external support plan established for the purpose of supporting and facilitating successful reintegration into society. Finally we commend the proposed amendment to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act to expressly require Correctional Services Canada to be responsive to special requirements or limitations of people with FASD. The problem of incarcerating people with FASD is pressing and can no longer be ignored.
This is a strong endorsement from the legal profession. We need to take action to assist those who have been incarcerated to help ensure they receive support to help them get back into society. That is why I urge all my hon. colleagues to consider voting in favour of this very important bill.