Mr. Speaker, today I am pleased to speak to Bill C-235, an act to amend the Criminal Code and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (fetal alcohol disorder).
I want to begin by saying that my NDP colleagues and I will support this bill. The NDP would like all parties in the House to work together to adopt this positive and long-overdue reform, which the previous government neglected.
Fetal alcohol disorder can have a range of effects on affected individuals. Those effects may include difficulty reasoning, inability to remember things, and trouble learning from past experiences and not repeating mistakes.
Bill C-235 defines the neurodevelopmental disorders associated with prenatal alcohol exposure. The spectrum of these disorders is commonly known as “fetal alcohol spectrum disorder” or by the acronym FASD, which I will use. This bill would amend the Criminal Code to establish a procedure for assessing individuals who are involved in the criminal justice system and who may suffer from fetal alcohol disorder. It would also include FASD as a mitigating factor in sentencing.
The bill also recognizes FASD as a disability in the federal correctional system. It also requires the courts to order people who have FASD to follow an external support plan so that they receive the support they need for their reintegration into society. It finally makes a consequential amendment to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.
Bill C-235 is actually is a reintroduction of two past bills to better address the needs of individuals suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome disorder who find themselves in our criminal justice system. In terms of the trial process, this latest version of the bill allows the courts to order an assessment over the objections of the defendant and at any stage of the proceedings. We have supported every past incarnation of this bill, which seeks to better address the needs and circumstances of offenders suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in the criminal justice system.
In accordance with its order of reference of Wednesday, November 26, 2014, the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights studied a previous version of this bill, Bill C-583. The report of that study was tabled in May 2015. The report indicates conclusively that people with fetal alcohol disorder are overrepresented in the penal justice system. According to a study conducted by the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of Yukon, 76% of the target population affected by fetal alcohol disorder had contact with the justice system.
Currently, our justice system does not leave room to take the individual's situation into account or to address it. It is therefore very important to support this bill, which needs to be passed quickly if we are to take people and their particular condition into consideration when we seek justice. We sincerely lament the fact that for years, the Conservatives ignored evidence and used a one-size-fits-all approach to impose mandatory minimum sentences that are costly, ineffective, and even unconstitutional.
The NDP is in favour of a more effective approach that is more suited to the victims. We have a real problem when it comes to identifying this disorder in those who have it. Wenda Bradley, one of the witnesses who appeared before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, said that “there are many people within our society who are affected by FASD but who have not been recognized and who keep circling in and out of the justice system”.
The problem is that this disorder is somewhat invisible. Those who have it look like you and me. However, they have special needs and that is why we must provide them with the appropriate support throughout the entire penal process.
In fact, when he appeared before the same committee, Rodney Snow had this to say:
...criminal law assumes that individuals make informed choices, that they decide to commit crimes, and that they learn from their own behaviour and the behaviour of others. Fourth, these assumptions are often not valid for individuals with FASD, so our criminal justice system fails them and it fails us.
By considering this disorder as a mitigating factor in criminal proceedings, we could better adjust sentences for these individuals. Studies of young offenders indicated, for example, that the sentence alone does not reduce criminal recidivism. On the contrary, it could even encourage it.
The passage of this bill would allow the criminal justice system to adapt sentences for these individuals so that they are as effective as possible. Moreover, a system would have to be put in place to identify children with fetal alcohol syndrome as early as possible.
The data I have collected on children with fetal alcohol syndrome demonstrate the extent of the problem in Canada. In Quebec, one in 128 children are affected by this disorder. In Ontario, one in 156 are affected. In Saskatchewan, it is one in 40. In the Northwest Territories, it is one in 33.
We must not wait until these individuals wind up in court for committing a crime before they are diagnosed with this disorder. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Yes, including FASD as a mitigating factor in sentencing is already a big step forward. However, this disorder also carries other consequences. A number of FASD symptoms, such as impulsiveness, make it hard for sufferers to hold down a job or live a stable life, which can lead to poverty and homelessness.
Having spent many years working in community-based organizations, including over 10 years as executive director of Auberge du coeur Le Baluchon, I knew a few young people who had FASD who, as a result of the disorder, had developmental delays and were constantly having problems at school. These young people endure one failure after another, and often they do not even understand why. They think that they are to blame for their problems and that they are inadequate. They often have very low self-esteem, which creates a whole slew of other problems. They will be penalized throughout their lives by the lack of appropriate care and support.
I think that it is critical that the government do more to support other levels of government in order to help people who have FASD and invest in prevention and awareness.
As an NDP member, I support this bill, and I urge all my colleagues in the House to do the same. Let us think of all the young people suffering from FASD and bring in measures that could help them.
Rod Snow, former president of the Canadian Bar Association, agrees that everyone should support this amendment to the Criminal Code and to our correctional system so that they are appropriate and effective when it comes to fighting crime. The old approach is simply not working.