Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join the second reading debate on this private member's bill, Bill C-375, an act to amend the Criminal Code regarding pre-sentence reports. This bill seeks to address the issue of mental health in the criminal justice system through a targeted amendment to the Criminal Code provision governing pre-sentence reports. Specifically, the bill would clarify that a pre-sentence report should, where possible, contain information about any mental disorder from which an offender suffers as well as any mental health care programs available to them.
I am in full agreement with the sponsor that the issue of mental health is of great concern to the criminal justice system. It has been identified as a key concern by many criminal justice stakeholders over the years. As part of our commitment to broadly review the criminal justice system in Canada, the Minister of Justice has indicated that addressing the needs of vulnerable offender populations in the criminal justice system is a key priority. Addressing the issue of mental health is also part of the Minister of Justice's mandate letter from the Prime Minister. Specifically, her mandate directs her to address gaps in services for those with mental illness throughout the criminal justice system.
The issue of mental health has arisen numerous times so far in the course of the minister's criminal justice review. It was raised by experts and other community stakeholders at the series of criminal justice round tables hosted by the Minister of Justice across Canada over the past two years. This thorough consultative process included a total of 20 round tables, with at least one in every province and territory. Mental health professionals, as well as representatives from traditionally marginalized communities, including indigenous and other racialized populations, featured prominently among the participants.
The round table held in Vancouver, in August 2016, was explicitly focused on mental health. At that event, our government heard, in no uncertain terms, that our criminal justice system must do a better job responding to mental illness. Experts in the field, as well as those with first-hand criminal justice experience, explained that addressing mental health is one of the critical ways our government can reduce crime, and in doing so, create safer and more prosperous communities throughout Canada.
Not only must we recognize mental health issues among those already involved in the criminal justice system, but by improving the mental health of our citizens before they engage in criminal behaviour, we can prevent longer-term struggles, which ultimately deprive our society of the full potential of those people. This idea was borne out in many of the stories and first-hand accounts we heard from Canadians throughout the round table process.
A typical story, one that is all too often true in our society, frequently begins with a young person from a marginalized community. That person experiences symptoms of mental distress, often beginning with depression or anxiety, but they go unnoticed because of a lack of institutional capacity or social support. The young person's mental state deteriorates, leading to lower performance at school, social withdrawal, and poor decision-making. The person's first involvement with the criminal justice system is often pursuant to a minor offence, such as a low-value theft or mischief. Nevertheless, he or she is convicted, and most likely, on a second offence, sentenced to a short period in custody. At this stage, the system fails to recognize the presence of worsening mental illness. Once inside the criminal justice system, the youth is exposed to an environment that aggravates rather than treats the mental health issues and the young person identifies with older, more serious offenders.
Upon returning to the community, the young person now suffers from a worsening, untreated mental illness and lacks the tools to effectively reintegrate. The unfortunate reality is that this person is now far more likely to reoffend and to live a life of continued criminal behaviour.
This story should not surprise any member of this House. While it is merely an example, our experience, including that gained through our own government's consultation process, has shown that this type of scenario continues to present itself in Canadian society.
It is because of stories like these that I commend the sponsor for his commitment to addressing mental health in the criminal justice system through Bill C-375. As I read the proposal, it would essentially codify the current practice of including mental health information in a pre-sentence report, where that information is readily available. In my view, this bill would not compel offenders to provide information about their mental health situation against their wishes, nor would it provide the court with the power to order the production of mental health records or empower it to order an assessment of the mental condition of the offender.
I understand that it is already common practice in many jurisdictions for offenders to provide information about their mental health through a probation officer where they feel it is beneficial to them. Therefore, in my view, the practical result of the bill would be to signal to a sentencing judge that this information is a relevant consideration at sentencing.
As I was reviewing the bill, I considered how such a proposal might fit within the broader goals and mandate of the Minister of Justice. The criminal justice system must protect all Canadians and keep our communities safe, but it must also protect the rights of all Canadians.
Our government is committed to ensuring the criminal law meets the highest standards of equity, fairness and respect for the rule of law. Healthy and safe communities are built upon a criminal justice system that treats the individuals with whom it interacts with respect, dignity, and in a manner that always upholds the rights and freedoms afforded to all by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Such a proposal could be seen as complementing our government's broader objectives of improving access to mental health care services for all Canadians.
For example, as members of the House will know, our government made a historic investment in mental health in budget 2017, with $11 billion of federal money being transferred to the provinces and territories over the next 10 years, almost half of which is to be dedicated to improving access to mental health and addiction services.
In addition, budget 2017 committed $118.2 million over five years to improve mental health supports for first nations and Inuit peoples. This money will be provided directly to communities so they can specifically tailor programs to meet their individual needs. This funding is in addition to the $69 million over three years announced in 2016 for immediate mental health needs and the more than $300 million provided annually to support culturally relevant mental wellness services for Canada's indigenous communities.
These significant and historic investments in front-line mental health services will benefit all Canadians, not just those who find themselves at odds with the criminal justice system. These upstream investments in mental health services could prevent a mentally ill person from coming into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place. Investing resources in our currently saturated mental health care system could decrease the likelihood that the criminal justice system would become the default method of dealing with these individuals.
I would like to briefly reflect on the communication I have had with members of my own community, constituents in my riding of Mississauga—Lakeshore, who have repeatedly written to me on the importance of mental health in Canada, particularly with respect to young people, indigenous communities, and also increasingly our seniors. In their correspondence to me, they underscore the importance for the government and all parliamentarians to take mental health seriously, to integrate mental health systematically into our policy decision-making processes, and to backstop the need to invest in mental health with adequate resources and investments.
I would like to thank the sponsor again for the steps he took in introducing the bill into the House of Commons. Through his own framework, his own lens of criminal justice and its intersection with mental health needs in Canada, he has moved the yardstick forward.
I am thankful for the opportunity to discuss this important proposal. I look forward to continued debate on this important private member's bill.