Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak today about the important amendments that are proposed in Bill C-5 as part of our government's effort to address systemic racism and discrimination. These are realities that are faced by racialized Canadians and indigenous peoples who come into contact with the criminal justice system, from initial interactions with law enforcement through to sentencing, incarceration and release.
We have heard Conservatives in this place question whether their “tough-on-crime” approach of mandatory minimum penalties perpetuates systemic discrimination in the criminal justice system. It does.
In 2020, indigenous adults accounted for 5% of the Canadian adult population but represented 30% of federally incarcerated individuals. Indigenous women now account for half of all federally incarcerated women. Black people are also more likely than other Canadians to be admitted to federal custody for an offence punishable by a mandatory minimum penalty, an MMP. Data from the Correctional Service of Canada from 2007 to 2017 shows that 39% of Black people and 20% of indigenous people who were federally incarcerated between those years were there for offences carrying a mandatory minimum penalty. Repealing those mandatory minimums is expected to reduce the overall rates of incarceration of indigenous people, Black Canadians and marginalized people.
Bill C-5 includes three categories of reforms. First, it would repeal mandatory minimum penalties for all drug offences, some firearm offences and a tobacco-related offence. Second, it would allow for greater use of conditional sentence orders, also known as CSOs. The third and final category of reforms would encourage police and prosecutors to consider alternative measures, such as diverting individuals to treatment programs, when exercising their discretion in cases involving simple possession of a drug.
These measures brought in by the previous government, while claiming to reduce crime, have proven to be ineffective, expensive, harmful and racist. The reforms found in Bill C-5 respond to calls from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. More recently, the parliamentary Black caucus, in their June 2020 statement, also called for the elimination of mandatory minimum penalties.
Let me be clear: These reforms will not negatively impact public safety and they do not signal to courts that these offences are not serious. MMPs would remain for such serious offences as murder, sexual assault, all child sexual offences and certain offences involving restricted or prohibited firearms, or when the offence involves a firearm and is linked to organized crime.
Bill C-5 will also increase the availability of conditional sentence orders, or CSOs. A conditional sentence order is a sentence of incarceration of less than two years that is served in the community under strict conditions, such as a curfew, house arrest or abstaining from possessing, owning or carrying a weapon. This proposed reform would increase access to alternatives to incarceration for low-risk offenders. Evidence shows that allowing offenders who would not pose a risk to public safety to serve their sentences in the community under strict punitive conditions can be more effective in reducing future criminality.
I have told the story of Emily O’Brien before, but I think it is worth repeating. Emily was sent to federal prison for four years after her partner coaxed her into smuggling narcotics across the Canadian border. She was sent to Grand Valley Institution on a mandatory minimum penalty. During her four years there, she noticed how prison did not prepare women for integrating back into society. Once she was released, she knew she had to make it on her own because there were no supports, so she created her own popcorn company, Comeback Snacks, which not only makes delicious popcorn but has a mission to hire women who have been sentenced to prison so they will not re-enter the criminal justice system.
Emily’s story is the exception to the rule: Most women who come out of the criminal justice system after MMPs actually come out much worse. Emily knew the privilege she had as a white woman with a post-secondary education. She had more resources and support when leaving prison than most women do.
We know that mandatory minimum penalties impact indigenous women at a higher level. I saw this first-hand when I visited Grand Valley Institution for Women and talked to many indigenous women from the prairies who were sent to Ontario because women's prisons out west were too full.
It became clear to me that MMPs were one of the reasons for the overcrowding of women's prisons out west, which had caused indigenous women to be separated from their communities, their families and their homes to serve a prison sentence. I met a woman from Flin Flon, Manitoba who had not seen her children in years because she had been sent to Ontario. She was heartbroken. I cannot help but wonder how, if this woman and others like her had been given a conditional sentence in her community, this would have impacted her children's lives and her relationship with them. Grand Valley Institution for Women has seen the number of indigenous women grow from 13 to 60 over the past two years, which is a direct result of the current sentencing regime of MMPs.
Through testimony at the public safety committee on the study of guns and gangs, as well as through my own conversations with community leaders, it is clear to me that community-led gang diversion and rehabilitation can have a profound impact. In many cases, prisons in Canada are an avenue for gang recruitment. I just finished reading The Ballad of Danny Wolfe. In it, author Joe Friesen reinforces that Canadian prisons served as a key avenue for gang recruitment to this indigenous gang founded by Danny and his brother. They played a major role in the growth of the gang, which later became the largest street gang in Canada.
My conversations with a parole officer and dedicated community leader who has been working in corrections for decades reinforced that it is critical to differentiate between hard-core criminals and young men who are seeking a sense of community through gang involvement due to connections between family and friends. By forcing judges to apply MMPs, which have been repeatedly found to be unconstitutional, our justice system fails to acknowledge the mitigating factors in a case that heighten young people's susceptibility to gang recruitment.
Rather than sending people to prison and heightening the likelihood of them being recruited into gangs at alarming rates, it is important to support life-changing programs such as Liberty for Youth. Liberty for Youth is an amazing organization that advocates for second chances and assists at-risk youth in Hamilton, while providing a safe space where youth feel accepted regardless of their mistakes, struggles or life circumstances.
Funding community organizations such as Liberty for Youth, the Bear Clan Patrol and OPK in Manitoba, and Str8 Up in Saskatchewan, which are on the ground in our communities and supporting individuals' transition away from crime, would have a greater impact on our public safety than putting vulnerable people behind bars. Supporting these young people in their communities is the rationale behind CSOs. However, CSOs are currently unavailable for all offences prosecuted by way of an indictment that are punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of 14 years or life. They are also unavailable for all offences punishable by a maximum term of 10 years' imprisonment if the offence resulted in bodily harm, involved drugs or involved the use of a weapon. The proposed reforms would remove many of these limitations on CSO eligibility.
Finally, while it is important to enact sentencing measures that aim to reduce recidivism and over-representation, it is equally essential to ensure that there are adequate off-ramps from the criminal justice system at the earliest stage of the criminal process, especially for conduct that could have been more appropriately treated as a health concern rather than a criminal one. To this end, Bill C-5 would require police and prosecutors to consider alternatives to laying or proceeding with charges for simple possession of drugs. Available alternatives would range from taking no action at all to issuing a warning or, if the individual agrees, diversion to an addiction treatment program. These measures are in line with a public health-centred approach to address substance use and the opioid epidemic in Canada.
It is time for us to take a new approach. We will ensure that serious criminals continue to receive serious sentences, but we will put control of this back in the hands of judges. The reforms in Bill C-5 would be transformational for those most impacted by the systemic racism built into our criminal justice system, and I hope that members of the House will support it.