Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have this opportunity to participate in the debate on Bill S-6 on the elimination of the faint hope clause.
I want to start where my colleague ended on the importance of having a place in our criminal justice system where redemption and hope are possible, even for those who have committed the most serious crimes that we deal with in our society. The member put it very well and I do not think I could say it better or more clearly than he has. This has to be an important part of our criminal justice system and our corrections system. The bill would go some way in eliminating that possibility from our system.
Bill S-6 is back in the House. The last time I spoke on this issue was back on June 18, 2009, when we debated Bill C-36, essentially the same bill. The bill died when the Prime Minister decided to prorogue the House, once again short-circuiting the government's agenda on criminal justice issues. It was not the House that has slowed down the Conservatives' agenda. They have slowed down their agenda by using prorogation and calling early elections. They have not put forth the effort that it takes to get legislation through this place and this is an excellent example of one of those bills. They like to blame the opposition, but the reality is they have done more harm to the timing of their own agenda than the opposition could ever hope to do.
Bill S-6 is an act to amend the Criminal Code on the right of persons convicted of murder or high treason to be eligible for early parole. One of the good amendments that has come out of the committee process this time around is to eliminate the silly subtitle that the Conservatives chose to give the legislation. I am glad that is gone.
At the outset, this legislation, which eliminates the possibility of revision to parole for people who have committed murder or who are sentenced to life for high treason, is completely wrong. I am opposed to the basic principle of the legislation that claims we are not well served by this process of judicial review, in fact of citizen review, and that the faint hope clause should not be part of our criminal justice system.
I really believe we have been well served by the legislation and by the process. I believe it has encouraged rehabilitation in our prison system and made our prisons safer for both other prisoners as well as the prison guards and other professionals who work in our correctional service. It gives people the possibility of hope that they might be released early from a life sentence.
It has a very important positive effect within the institutions of the correctional system. It has also allowed for a measure of discretion to review the parole eligibility of people who have been sentenced to life in prison and it has encouraged a strong measure of citizen involvement in making the decisions on that very important process. However, in my opinion this legislation would seek to undo all of those things.
The current legislation and section 745.6 of the Criminal Code, which deals with judicial review, enables offenders serving life in prison with parole ineligibility periods of more than 15 years to apply for a reduction of that period. The review is not intended as a forum for retrial of the original offence. The focus is instead on the progress of the offender after having served at least 15 years of his or her sentence. That is how the Department of Justice describes the current process on its website. It is how it describes the intent of the current legislation.
It is important to review the process involved when the faint hope clause is engaged by someone serving a life sentence in prison. It is a very rigorous one. It is one that involves several stages. It is not easy to accomplish and everyone needs to appreciate the fact that there is rigour involved in this process.
The first stage is an application to the chief justice of the province in which the person was convicted. The chief justice or a designated superior court judge reviews the written materials presented from the Crown and the applicant. Then that judge determines on the basis of the written materials whether the applicant has shown on a balance of probabilities that there is a reasonable prospect that the application will succeed. If the judge decides that, a jury is impanelled to hear the case. If the judge decides there is no reason to proceed further, the appeal process stops at this point and there is no further follow-up. The judge, the Crown, the applicant all have a key role in this first stage.
The next stage is the jury. When the jury is constituted and impanelled, it then considers a number of issues when it looks at the application from the person in prison. When determining whether there should be a reduction of parole ineligibility, the jury determines the character of the applicant, his or her conduct while serving the sentence, the nature of the offence, information provided by the victim's family members about how the crime has affected them and any other matters the judge has considered relevant in the circumstances. The jury looks at a very broad scope at this point.
This is a panel of 12 citizens and the panel considers those factors and makes a decision about the reduction of the period of ineligibility. The decision of that jury to reduce the ineligibility period must be unanimous. We are not talking about a simple majority or anything like that. The jury can reduce the parole ineligibility period immediately, or at a later date or deny any reduction.
This is a pretty important process involving citizens who are engaged in this decision. That is a crucial thing to notice about this process. It is important to protect that point where citizens can engage in the criminal justice system, where they can engage in the corrections system and help make important decisions that affect the community, that affect other citizens, both victims and people in prison. That is a crucial piece of the existing legislation. It is important to have citizens engaged in making decisions.
There are safeguards all through this process. The fact that the jury has to be unanimous is key among those safeguards in the existing process.
When the jury decides unanimously that the number of years to be served should be reduced, it can then decide by a two-thirds majority the number of years that must be served before the inmate can apply to the National Parole Board. If the jury decides that the period of parole ineligibility is not to be reduced, it can set another time at which the prisoner can again apply for judicial review. If no date is set, then the prisoner can reapply after two years for this process to be engaged again.
It is a complex process. The process initially involves a senior judge and then a jury of 12 citizens, two of the most important features of our system. Judicial discretion is involved. There is a strong citizen involvement component. The community is absolutely represented in the decision that someone's parole should be reduced.
That is not the end of the story because then the parole board does its job. The decision about whether the person gets out on parole is made by the parole board in the usual fashion. Here is another group of professionals who serve our communities admirably, who are engaged in this decision-making process, who are then engaged in discovering whether the person will succeed in the community and then help that person if he or she is ultimately released into the community.
This is not just a short-term parole. Anyone who gets out as a result of this process is on parole for life. That parole period never ends. It continues until that person dies. We need to remember again how important that is and how that offers protection to our communities as well.
There is a lot to this complex process. It is one that has served us well over many years. It originally came in during the mid-seventies when we essentially stopped using capital punishment. It was reaffirmed after the last capital punishment debate in the House in 1986. I believe it has been serving us essentially in its current form for about 25 years.
What has happened in that 25 years? What is the exact experience of this faint hope clause, of this possibility for early parole for someone who is sentenced to life for murder or treason?
New information came out during the course of the justice committee hearings on this bill from the Commissioner of the Correctional Service Canada, Mr. Don Head. He presented information that was valid as of October 10, 2010. He noted that there were 1,508 offenders with cases applicable to judicial review. That is the number of people in our system who could potentially apply for early release under the faint hope clause.
In the 25 years since the first judicial review hearing in 1987, there have a total of 181 court decision. In that 25 years, 181 people have applied to engage this process. That is not a significant number when we look at the total number who are eligible to do that.
Of those 181 court decisions, 146 resulted in a reduction of the period that must be served before parole eligibility and 35 resulted in a refusal. Already, the system has been weeding out the potential reductions.
Of the 146 offenders who had their parole eligibility moved earlier, 135 have been granted parole. Again, there is a change in the number. Out of the potential 146, we are down to 135.
Of those 135 who were granted parole, 68 have had no issue during their period of supervisions, 35 received a suspension because of some problem during their parole but their parole was not subsequently revoked and 23 had their parole revoked. Apparently a lot of those cases dealt with issues related to chronic offending against the conditions of parole, things like using drugs, alcohol, being late when there were restrictions on their movements, those kinds of things.
Seven of the one hundred and thirty-five who reoffended did it in a non-violent manner and two offended violently. Therefore, nine people reoffended out of the total number of cases that were looked at, seven in a non-violent manner and two offended violently. I believe a number of the seven offences were also related to drugs.
That is a whole other issue that we could talk about. We could talk about how our criminal legislation around drugs serves our communities, how well it has served us and the problems with that, but that is probably for another debate.
Of the two offenders who offended violently, one was found guilty of two counts of assault with a weapon and one count of assault using force and the other offender was found guilty of one count of robbery.
I am not going to make any bones about it. Those are serious crimes and serious issues, but these people were charged and convicted in court and are back in jail.
To put it succinctly, since 1987, there have been thousands of offenders who were eligible for early parole. Only 181 chose to apply. Out of those 181, only 135 received a reduction in their sentence. Less than 15%, in fact, of those eligible have applied.
Some of the talk about the legislation comes about because there is somehow this impression that we treat people who have committed murder in Canada lightly, that somehow we are soft on that crime in Canada and that people do not serve a lot of time in Canadian prisons for the crime of murder. In fact, it turns out that is absolutely the furthest from the truth.
It has been shown that the average time served in prison for first degree murder in Canada is 28.4 years. That is one of the longest average times in any country in the world. In comparison, in the United States, the average time incarcerated is 23 years. In many other countries, it is even shorter than that. Certainly in countries like New Zealand, Scotland, Switzerland and England, the average time spent incarcerated for murder is under 15 years.
The fact is that Canada does treat this crime far more severely than many of the countries to which we would want to be compared and significantly more when we look at the average time people spend in prison. It is not something that we are being soft on. We are taking advantage of the possibility of incarceration. We are ensuring that people spend a significant time in jail.
There may be problems with that. Perhaps that is something we should be looking at as it may not be serving us well. In terms of the whole argument that somehow we are soft on crime and this is an issue that needs to be addressed by this Parliament, it turns out that is baloney because we are in fact much more severe than almost any other country we would choose to compare ourselves to. That is something that is also crucial to know in this process.
We have a process that we have had long experience with and that has been in place for over 25 years, probably even longer than that because it was in place for probably a decade before that. There were some changes made to it in the late 1980s. We have good experience with this. It is a program that has been successful, that has shown real and positive results for both people who have been incarcerated in our system and for the communities from which they come and to which they often return. It has shown that citizens can be engaged in a meaningful way in making determinations about their safety and the safety of their communities and decisions about who has been successfully rehabilitated. Citizens get to apply those standards that they believe are most important in making that kind of determination.
If there is a reason why we should reject this legislation, it is because it very clearly eliminates the possibility of citizen engagement in this very important process. This is something that has evolved over time and is something that we have shown great leadership in, establishing this kind of process that allows citizens to make important decisions about parole eligibility for people who have committed the most serious crimes possible in our society. It speaks well to our society that we both make that possibility available and that we also engage citizens directly in making the ultimate decisions about who gets out early, about who has been successfully rehabilitated. The process engages judges with discretion and engages a very senior level of judiciary in this decision-making process. That is also very important. It is important to give judges that discretion and that they exercise discretion on our behalf. After all, they are experts in this area. That is something that is also very important and a key aspect of this process.
As well, we must remember that the parole system continues to be engaged, that even the small number of people who do successfully complete this process remain on parole for the remainder of their lives and under strict supervision by the people who run our parole system.
I recently met with representatives of the parole system in my community. I was very impressed by the work that they do on our behalf in Burnaby and in New Westminster where the office is located. It is a very important contribution they make to the safety of our community and to the hopes of our society, that people can turn their lives around and be successfully integrated back into the community. It is important that we acknowledge the work that they do. It is very difficult work. They are often under great scrutiny for the decisions that they make. I am not sure that we always appreciate all that goes into an understanding, a determination of parole and that ongoing supervisory role that people engage when they are released from a correctional institution in Canada. I want to salute parole officers and the people in the parole system for the important work that they do.
All in all, this is a very flawed bill. It eliminates the possibility for hope, for redemption, as my colleague from Vancouver Kingsway so clearly pointed out in his speech a few minutes ago. We should be very cautious about eliminating this from our system. When we eliminate the possibility of hope, even from those who have committed the most serious crimes, we do not make our society any safer, nor do we make it any better and the bill takes us down absolutely the wrong course.