Mr. Speaker, I am proud to rise today in the House to add my voice to those of my hon. colleagues who have spoken so passionately in favour of this legislation.
Bill C-10, Safe Streets and Communities Act represents sweeping change to laws that we believe are no longer acceptable as they stand. It enacts common sense measures that are long overdue.
On May 2, Canadians gave us a strong mandate to keep our streets and communities safe. Part of that means delivering on our promise to strengthen victims' rights, to protect our most vulnerable and to ensure serious criminals serve serious sentences. The legislation before us will go a long way to helping us fulfill our pledge to Canadians.
As we have heard during the debate, the safe streets and communities act contains many important components. These include measures that protect our children from violent sexual offenders, that restrict house arrest and conditional sentences and that target organized crime by imposing tougher sentences on drug dealers.
Today I will focus on the reforms to our correctional system. Specifically, these proposed amendments enshrine in law a victim's right to participate in parole hearings and address inmate accountability, responsibility and management under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.
Allow me to give hon. members a brief background to this measure. In 2007 our government undertook an important review process of Correctional Service Canada. This was done through an independent panel, which studied the business plans, priorities and strategies of the agency.
The panel released its final report in December 2007. It was entitled, “A Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety”. It included no fewer than 109 recommendations that fell under five themes: offender accountability; eliminating drugs from prisons; physical infrastructure; employabilty/employment; and moving to earn parole.
This report represented a road map that would help us improve rehabilitation, provide a safer environment for employees and, most important, enhance public safety.
Our government has already made important progress on two key areas laid out by that independent panel, those drug use in our prison system and addressing the problems of offenders dealing with mental illness.
The legislation before us today proposes reforms in four more key areas that were proposed by that independent panel some four years ago. These areas include providing better support for victims of crime, enhancing the accountability and responsibility of offenders, strengthening the management of offender re-integration and modernizing prison discipline.
Let us start with the first item, providing better support for victims of crime. Canadians have told us that victims of crime deserve to have their interests and concerns brought to the forefront. For me, that is certainly the priority.
The amendments we have proposed are in direct response to what we have heard from victims and victims' rights groups across our country. They have asked our government to give them a stronger voice, and we are proud to deliver.
Victims often have to travel from far distances to be in attendance at parole hearings. The problem is that under the existing legislation, offenders can withdraw their participation in the hearing at the last minute, effectively cancelling the parole hearing.
We believe this is fundamentally unfair to victims of crime and we propose to fix this. The bill proposes that if an offender withdraws his or her participation 14 days or less before a hearing date, the Parole Board may still go ahead with the scheduled meeting regardless. It also gives victims the right to find out why the offender has withdrawn his or her attendance at the parole hearing.
These two measures would go a long way to ensuring victims minimize further financial and emotional hardship. Bill C-10 will also ensure that victims have a legal right to attend and make statements at parole hearings.
The safe streets and communities act will also amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act to allow victims and their families to obtain more information about an offender through Correctional Service Canada and from the Parole Board of Canada. This includes information about the reasons for temporary absences from custody as well as updates on the offender's participation in his or her correctional plan.
Victims would also have the right to request information on why an offender is being transferred between institutions and particularly, whenever possible, advance notice when the offender is being transferred to a minimum security institution. They would also be allowed to obtain information on any serious disciplinary offences that offenders commit while serving their sentence.
Just as importantly, guardians and caregivers of dependents of victims who are deceased, ill or otherwise incapacitated, will have access to the same information that victims can receive. This is important because these guardians and caregivers play an important role in the ongoing care of victims and their dependents.
In terms of providing victims more of a voice, this legislation is an important step forward that will help put victims rights at the forefront of the corrections and parole system. I think that should be the prime concern of all members of this House.
The second change focuses on the offenders themselves. As I mentioned earlier, a key recommendation from the independent panel was to make offenders more accountable. As such, Bill C-10 contains amendments that will ensure that rehabilitation, as well as reintegration into the community, is a shared responsibility between offenders and Correctional Service Canada.
The question is, what does this mean practically? It means that offenders will be required to conduct themselves in a manner that is respectful of other people and their property. It means that offenders must obey the rules set out by the institution where they are serving their sentence, as well as heed all conditions that govern release.
Above all, it means restoring common sense. Offenders will simply not receive benefits for bad behaviour. Offenders will also be responsible to actively participate in their correctional plan.
As part of these amendments, the legislation allows for the establishment of incentive measures that will promote offender participation in their correctional plan. We firmly believe that with appropriate programs and active participation from both the offender and the corrections system that many individuals can become law-abiding citizens.
The successful rehabilitation and reintegration of an offender into a community is a shared responsibility. We are committed to providing appropriate programs to offenders, but it is only fair to expect offenders to do their part.
That is the message that we have heard consistently from Canadians, from victims, from advocacy groups and from our corrections officers. By enshrining in law the importance of correctional plans, we are sending a message that engaging offenders in their own reintegration into the community is an important part of our correctional system.
Both the offender and Correctional Service Canada have a part to plan in meeting that objective. These reforms will also take particular note of offenders with mental health issues, and ensure that their correctional plans are developed properly. This is reasonable and fair.
The correctional plan will play an important role in the lives of each offender, setting out the expected behaviours, the need to participate in rehabilitation programs, and also the requirement to fulfill all court-ordered financial obligations.
The third part of these reforms involves how offenders are managed in the community. For example, the amendments will give police the power to arrest an offender without a warrant if it appears that he or she is in violation of their release conditions. It will automatically suspend the parole or conditional release of an offender if that individual receives a new custodial sentence.
We come now to the final area of reform related to this component of Bill C-10. This covers amendments to modernize the system of prison discipline. Specifically, two new disciplinary offences will be created: first, knowingly making a false claim for compensation from the Crown; and second, throwing a bodily substance at another person. The reforms will also address disrespectful and abusive behaviour.
We also propose to allow the Commissioner of Correctional Service Canada to designate sub-populations. By this I mean moving beyond the traditional designations of minimum, medium and maximum. This will better reflect the diversity of the inmate population and the challenges of managing subgroups that are often incompatible.
These measures will go a long way toward our commitment to transform our corrections system and to put victims first. We believe these changes are needed, and they are needed now.
I urge the NDP to finally stop putting the rights of criminals ahead of the rights of law-abiding Canadians and support this legislation.