Mr. Speaker, I am here today to speak to private member's Bill C-375, an act to amend the Criminal Code with respect to pre-sentence reports.
Let me say at the outset that our government will be supporting Bill C-375, and we commend the hon. member for Richmond Hill for his leadership and collaboration on the important issue of mental health in our criminal justice system.
I was listening very carefully to some of the concerns expressed by my Conservative colleague from the riding of Durham. It is important to address the thrust of it, which is that this private member's bill is somehow vague. In fact, in our interpretation of this private member's bill, it serves to clarify and cure a vagueness in the Criminal Code by making an express reference to mental health concerns in the context of the criminal sentencing process. What is important for my hon. colleague to appreciate is that in that context, when we are talking about finding someone not criminally responsible as a result of not having the mental capacity to appreciate the consequences of committing a criminal offence, it is a separate and distinct legal concept from the provisions under sections 718 and 721 of the Criminal Code, where after an accused individual pleads guilty and has accepted responsibility for committing those offences, a judge would take into consideration mental health issues as part of the overall sentencing exercise. I offer those comments in the spirit of constructive dialogue.
Let me say for my hon. colleague from Richmond Hill that in the first hour of second reading debate, the sponsor stated that his bill is intended to ensure that individuals with mental illnesses who find themselves in the criminal justice system are afforded the care, compassion, and appropriate treatment they need during the process of their rehabilitation. Specifically, the bill aims to make the criminal justice system more responsive to individuals with mental health issues by amending subsection 721(3) of the Criminal Code to specify that a pre-sentence report must contain information regarding any mental disorder from which the offender suffers.
A pre-sentence report is a written document prepared by a probation officer to help the court learn more about the person to be sentenced. Its purpose is to assist the court in making the appropriate sentencing decision. These reports are intended to be an accurate, independent, and balanced assessment of an offender and his or her prospects for the future.
Accordingly, these pre-sentence reports help to provide judges with a firm evidentiary basis on which to exercise their discretion at sentencing. When judges are given the necessary background and context about each unique set of circumstances, the result is a sentence that better protects the community, rehabilitates the offender, and ultimately reduces crime.
The Criminal Code currently outlines that certain information about the offender, including his or her age, maturity, character, behaviour, attitude, and willingness to make amends, should be contained in a pre-sentence report.
It should also include the criminal history of the offender under the Youth Criminal Justice Act and the history of previous sentences and findings of guilt. The history of alternative measures used to deal with the offender, and the offender's response to those measures, should similarly be contained in the report. Those measures may include judicial cautions or programs requiring community service or repairing harm done.
However, the Criminal Code does not presently expressly require that information about the mental condition of the offender, as it relates to the offence, be included in the pre-sentence report. In my view, this is highly relevant information for a judge who is attempting to craft an appropriate sentence. Indeed, as we learn more and more about the role of mental health issues in contributing to criminal behaviour, the importance of considering this information at sentencing is beyond question.
The impacts of mental illness are of course not limited to the criminal justice system. They are linked to much broader challenges being faced by our society as a whole. Today mental health issues cost Canadians millions of dollars each year. As the sponsor has previously said, it is estimated that the total cost of mental health challenges exceeds $50 billion annually in health care expenses and lost productivity. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, in any given year, one in five people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness. These challenges are even more pronounced in the criminal justice system.
While statistics are not as fulsome as we may like, there is evidence to suggest that in our penitentiaries, mental health issues are two to three times more prevalent than in the general population. The rate of mental illness among federal offenders has more than doubled in the last 20 years. In fact, individuals with mental illness are more likely to be arrested, detained, and incarcerated and are consequently more likely to be disciplined rather than treated. This is an ongoing issue, as once they have been released from the criminal justice system, they are also more likely to be rearrested and to reoffend. In other words, an offender whose mental illness is unrecognized and untreated is at far greater risk of being caught in the revolving door of incarceration and repeat offending.
That is why we need to continue to develop measures like the one proposed in Bill C-375, to address mental health in a proactive way. In particular, the bill will help to ensure that our judges are well-equipped to assess the needs of those being sentenced and enable them to direct the offenders to proper rehabilitation. This, ultimately, will help to break the vicious cycle of criminality by addressing this issue at the outset.
The social and economic benefits of this smart and proactive approach to criminal justice can hardly be overstated. Under the prior government, we saw time and time again that a regressive approach to sentencing divides families and consumes financial resources that could be better used to improve the lives of Canadians and to keep all of them safe. Instead, by identifying and meeting the mental health needs of offenders in the short term, we can stop that revolving door of chronic reoffending and create a safer, more prosperous community for all. All of this begins by identifying the underlying problem, which is precisely what Bill C-375 works to ensure.
It appears to me that supporting this bill is consistent with a number of broader initiatives of our government that are aimed at supporting those mental health issues, and they go back to our prior budgets. In budget 2018, we build on the investments made in past years, proposing an additional $20.4 million over five years, beginning in 2018-19, and $5.6 million per year ongoing. The funding is aligned with the recently announced investment of $5 billion over 10 years to improve mental health services across the country.
Bill C-375 is also consistent with the mandate given by the Prime Minister to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General . In particular, she was directed to “address gaps in services to...those with mental illness throughout the criminal justice system.” In my view, the measures proposed in Bill C-375 are consistent with that mandate and will serve to advance our government's broader plan to address the challenges related to mental health in Canada.
Before concluding, I wish to draw attention to a few questions I have identified with this bill. I would like to think that these issues could be studied by the committee and possibly addressed through minor amendments.
First, I note that the bill focuses on the need for a diagnosis of an offender, and not on the symptoms or behaviours that manifest as a result of a mental health issue. In my view, it would be more useful to a sentencing judge to have broader information about the offender's mental health more generally, rather than the official diagnosis.
Second, I would note that the bill does not contain a link or a nexus between the mental health information that is sought and the purpose for which it will be used. For me, this raises some concerns that a sentencing court could be provided with mental health information that may not be directly relevant to the offence, and by extension the sentencing process. I trust that these are issues the committee will address through its study.
Finally, it seems to me that the language with respect to “mental health programs” could create some confusion as to what type of information should be provided to the court. In my view, it is unclear what is meant by the term “programs”, as mental health care is, indeed, a specific type of medical care and not specifically delivered through programming.
Once again, I expect that all these issues can be thoroughly addressed at committee.
I would once again like to thank the sponsor of this bill and commend him for his work and his commitment to mental health issues. I know that it comes from a place of great sincerity and authenticity. I look forward to supporting this private member's bill, along with all members of the House.