Bill C-229 is based on a measure from the dying days of the last Parliament. This is not a bill that was on the agenda of the previous government during its 10 years on that side of the House. Instead it was introduced in the pre-election period at a flashy campaign style event. I am afraid it is a bill that is more about playing politics than making good policy. It is a costly and ineffective bill, one that runs against the grain of evidence and one that would continue with the very agenda that Canadians so decisively rejected last October.
Bill C-229 would lengthen the custodial sentences for a number of the most severe offences. We should bear several things in mind.
We should remember that life sentences are already applied for the most serious offences and, indeed, are already mandatory for some. We should remember that the mechanisms, such as Parole Board assessments and dangerous and long-term offender designations, already keep the worst offenders behind bars if they continue to represent a threat to society.
When looking at offenders who do not continue to pose such a danger to society, we should remember that overwhelming evidence concludes that punitive sentences do not make communities safe. In fact, while failing to deter potential offenders, mandatory minimums actually increase the risk of future offences.
In short, the bill offers ineffective solutions to a problem that does not exist. As an editorial last year in the National Post put it:
It is hard to imagine this bill surviving constitutional scrutiny, it is so disproportionate, so lacking in evidence either of its necessity or effectiveness.
However, worse than that, the bill, as drafted, would introduce a truly bizarre concept in our judicial system, and that is a mechanism for cabinet to control the release of particular offenders. Canadians know these decisions should be made by professional assessment, not at political discretion. We believe the only responsible approach is for parole decisions to be based on careful assessment of risk that an offender poses to the community and to public safety. Today, these decisions are made by the Parole Board of Canada, an independent administrative tribunal free from political interference. That board is clear that its paramount consideration in all decisions is the safety of the public.
Again, it is important for Canadians to remember that a life sentence already means just that. Let me quote from the Parole Board of Canada:
Myth... A life sentence in Canada means that offenders only have to serve 25 years before they are released. Reality: A life sentence means life. Lifers will never again enjoy total freedom.
The Parole Board makes the realities of our current laws very clear. I applaud it for providing this information to all Canadians to clear up some of the misconceptions that surround these issues.
Let us be clear. Offenders serving life sentences can only be released from prison if granted parole after an assessment to confirm that they do not pose a risk to the community. Even if they are ever released, they remain under supervision and various restrictions for the rest of their life.
Again, to quote from the Parole Board, “Not all lifers will be granted parole. Some may never be released on parole because they continue to represent too great a risk to re-offend.”
It is these individualized judgments that are crucial to keeping our communities safe. Removing them would also have a serious side effect.
The Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada has stated that lengthening incarceration periods or removing the possibility of even applying for parole can eliminate the incentive for rehabilitation and good behaviour, putting the safety of correctional staff at risk. That makes sense. Prisoners who are serving life sentences know that they have virtually no chance of getting out. What possible incentive is there for them to correct their ways to try to make themselves better members of society?
There is too much to criticize in this bill, and unfortunately, too little time in which to do it. However, let me turn to what we should be doing to not only improve public safety but to increase transparency and public trust in our judicial system.
The Liberal government has promised a review of the changes to our criminal justice system over the last 10 years, including the much criticized increase in the use of minimum sentences. This process, which should be a priority for the government, must seek to increase the use of proven alternatives to custodial sentencing, where appropriate and to implement the recommendations of the Ashley Smith inquest with respect to solitary confinement. It must also take real action to reduce the overrepresentation of indigenous Canadians in the criminal justice system. That is a statistic that is an absolutely shameful mark on our country's affairs.
Those are the priorities Canadians expect us to address in this House. I would urge every colleague in this House to join with us in the NDP on this side of the House in rejecting this bill, which is simply a remnant of an agenda Canadians have rejected. Instead, I hope that the government will soon bring to this House its own proposals for positive reforms to our criminal justice system.
Canadians have been very patient, but these are urgent issues of justice and public safety, and they deserve to be treated as priorities.