Mr. Speaker, first I want to thank the parliamentary secretary and member for Prince Albert-Churchill River for agreeing to reverse the order during the debate at third reading, since the subcommittee on national security will meet at 4.45 p.m.
When Bill C-55, which amends the Criminal Code and several other acts, was first introduced, the official opposition expressed some reservations, particularly as regards new clause 810.2 of the Criminal Code, as proposed at the time, and the clause dealing with electronic surveillance.
I will get back in a few moments to these two clauses, which seemed to present a problem at the time, to see how these issues were solved.
Bill C-55 provides the Canadian justice system with the tools needed to deal with a new reality, with a new approach towards criminals and with changes to the criminals' behaviour, because the traditional notion of what constitutes a crime has evolved during the last few years and the last few decades in Canada.
Since this bill aims at keeping a closer eye on dangerous criminals, at providing the justice system with the means to act in
order to prevent dangerous offenders from being released, it is a step in the right direction, because it gives us tools we did not have before and without which we could not control, at the end of a sentence, the behaviour of an individual who obviously is going to reoffend.
Bill C-55 allows the government, through the courts, to act in order to control dangerous offenders by giving indeterminate sentences. It also adds a new category of criminals who will be designated as long term offenders and it includes provisions that make the release of some inmates subject to certain conditions, where the inmates will have to report and guarantee that their release will represent the lowest possible risk for society. We can easily agree that we need to get involved in these matters, as we mentioned at second reading.
That left us with the two obvious issues raised by section 810.2 and the provisions concerning electronic monitoring, which were giving up some problems. By the way, these two clauses were considered in detail in committee.
Section 810.2 as it was introduced in this House was totally unacceptable. It meant to give the attorney general the power to use an institution set up, according to our criminal law, to settle the relations between individuals, what is called a "peace bond" in English. This is a procedure created under British common law in which the state or the crown does not interfere. The classic example university students are given is that of a rejected lover who keeps pursuing his old flame, who in turns asks for a court order in order to get some peace, hence the term "peace bond", I guess.
In the original bill that was brought forward, section 810.2 authorized the attorney general to request, on behalf of the state, the issuance of a peace bond requiring the person against whom the peace bond has been issued to comply with strict conditions.
The state was interfering with private relationships in criminal or privacy matters, which seemed unacceptable to us when we studied the bill, and at the second reading stage.
Things have evolved, and our position was strongly supported by most witnesses who addressed section 810.2 specifically before the justice and legal affairs committee. Almost all of them said that the attorney general should not have the authority to request the issuance of a peace bond against someone.
And we can see where the problem lies because we can imagine a situation where a judge, having heard a criminal case, may very well decide to acquit the accused on the basis of reasonable doubt, but in the case of a request by the attorney general for the issuance of a peace bond, the same judge having heard the same evidence may say: "I did acquit you on the basis of reasonable doubt, but on the basis of the preponderance of evidence, I come to the conclusion that you have committed the offence and that measures must be taken to protect society against you".
So there was a risk of having a grey category of people in Canadian society. We would have had people who were guilty, people who were innocent, of course, which is the vast majority of Canadians, but also people against whom a peace bond had been issued at the request of the state and who, having not been convicted of any criminal offence, would have had to account for their time and whereabouts to a probation officer or to the court. We thought it was absolutely unacceptable.
In a free society such as ours where criminal law principles are based on age old values, we cannot tolerate or accept a situation where a person is in legal limbo, not knowing what his or her rights are.
There are innocent people, and every citizen is presumed innocent, and there are some who have been found guilty.
The amendments to section 810.2 mean that, henceforth, under the wording as it now stands at third reading, following pressure from the official opposition, following pressure from witnesses who appeared before the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs, section 810.2 has a new wording. I thank those who paid attention to the representations made for having taken them into account and given us a wording that now means that the peace bond provided for in 810.2 again becomes an bond between two people, to be used by an ordinary citizen against another person disturbing his peace.
The only requirement that will be made under section 810.2, which is certainly a rather special peace bond given the consequences for anyone who violates it, is that an individual who wishes to avail himself of these provisions must so inform the attorney general.
I think it normal, in an orderly society, that the attorney general responsible for the administration of justice under the provisions of our constitutional laws be aware of what is happening before our courts.
The amendment to 810.2 disposes of our first objection in a positive manner. There goes one obstacle to our supporting Bill C-55. The public's rights are protected, but so are the rights of individuals, primarily the fundamental rights that are the heritage of those who for decades, not to say centuries, helped construct our criminal law, whether in the United Kingdom or in Canada. The values passed down to us are the same.
It would have been unfortunate if a section passed on the sly challenged the very basis of what makes our criminal justice system so rich, that is the presumption of innocence and the clear distinction between the rights of individuals.
Our second concern was about electronic surveillance involving those famous wrist bands to monitor someone without having to put him in jail. Was this appliance appropriate? One can still have concerns about it.
Of course, at present, there is a considerable number of inmates, probably even a critical mass, so to speak, who do not have to be physically detained to be monitored. Those people represent a low to moderate risk. Can we rely on a system whereby a person wearing a wrist band will stay in contact by telephone with a police station in order to allow it to monitor his presence inside a given perimeter?
Our main objection concerned the effectiveness of such a system and our capacity to apply it everywhere in Canada. Such measures would probably be easy to apply in cities like Toronto, Montreal, Quebec or Vancouver. However, in vast areas where communications are uncertain, where distances are so great that police stations that could act as headquarters for the monitoring of a criminal wearing a wrist band are quite far apart, I suggest that it would be difficult to implement such a system. Will inmates have to move to be eligible to the electronic surveillance program? I do not know.
I still have doubts, but some of my concerns were answered in committee by some of the studies. They were answered, but we should keep in mind that witnesses told us that in the United States, for instance, field trials have shown that should the authorities lose contact with an individual, the electronic bracelet could be used-this is not in the bill-to inject a toxic substance causing cramps, diarrhoea or other rather debilitating physical symptoms.
The loss of contact with the monitoring centre might be accidental. One must realize that there are limits. Let us try out the electronic bracelet. This piece of legislation could be revisited in a few months or a few years if problems arise; however, we should be aware that well organised groups, mainly south of the border, especially in the United States, have done research, are ready and have a technology that would make it possible to go much further and take steps that are unacceptable in a free and democratic society.
The reliability of an electronic bracelet system can also be questioned. Will people lose contact with their monitoring centre unexpectedly, by accident, through no fault of their own? False alarms are quite possible in this area. This is probably a chance we have to take, if we want to see how good the system is.
Of course, it will alleviate the problem of overcrowded prisons by not incarcerating a number of people who should not be put in jail and who are a financial burden first for the government, but also in terms of human resources remaining inactive. One should not think that keeping track from afar, by means of an electronic bracelet, of an individual who should be monitored is a panacea, the solution to all that ails us.
But since the evidence presented to the Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs shows that the advantages are greater than the disadvantages, we are ready to give it a chance and support the present wording of Bill C-55, including the clause on electronic surveillance of prisoners, subject to the earliest possible reassessment.
There were some other points, such as accelerating the rehabilitation of prisoners who do not belong in prison, or penitentiary in the case of federal jurisdiction. We can also support these measures.
In the end, after the committee review, our position changed because the bill was amended. Clearly I always come back to section 810.2, which was the main hurdle. Since it has been amended, we no longer have any reason to object to the bill so we will support Bill C-55 at third reading.