Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-9, a bill which has been referred to as the amendment to conditional sentencing. As my fellow members of Parliament are aware, the bill amends section 742.1 of the Criminal Code to provide that a person convicted of an offence prosecuted by way of indictment, for which the maximum term of imprisonment is 10 years or more, is not eligible for a conditional sentence.
As I am sure my fellow members are also aware, conditional sentencing introduced in September 1996 allows for sentences of imprisonment to be served in the community rather than in a correctional facility. This gives judges some freedom to take into account individual circumstances and allow for sentencing that fits with the crime committed.
Judges can take into account such things as the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender. For offences that are less serious, judges can choose conditional sentencing. Our jails are seriously overcrowded and underfunded. In 1996 conditional sentencing was seen as a way to ease the burden.
By taking away conditional sentencing, we are second-guessing our judges and limiting their ability to address individual circumstances. Another positive function of conditional sentencing is the ability for judges to provide opportunities for those convicted to acknowledge their crime and even make reparation.
The intention of this type of sentencing was to divert more minor offences out of the prison system. However, I certainly recognize that there is a real concern that conditional sentencing is being used for serious crime such as sexual assault, violent crime and driving offences involving death or serious bodily harm. These are the crimes that merit this amendment. However, I am also very concerned that this amendment to the Criminal Code can do more harm than good. We do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The Conservative government will provide money for federal jails, but this law as is will mean most of the increased jail terms will be spent in provincial facilities. The government should not be downloading the effects of its crime agenda to the provinces without support to hire more local police, expand youth initiatives, and increase and improve provincial jail capacity.
In the United Nations Vienna Declaration on Crime and Justice it states that:
--adequate prevention and rehabilitation programmes are fundamental to an effective crime control strategy, and that such programmes should take into account social and economic factors which may make people more vulnerable to, and likely to engage in criminal behaviour.
The declaration also stresses that “a fair, responsible, ethical and efficient criminal justice system is an important factor in the promotion of economic and social development and of human security”. Eliminating conditional sentencing will not address these concerns made by the UN declaration, but it will increase the population in Canada's jails and will do nothing to address the sources of crime.
One of the key issues that the UN declaration points to is poverty. It calls for countries “to create a conducive environment for the fight against organized crime, promoting growth and sustainable development and eradicating poverty and unemployment”.
What we really need to do to prevent crime is to go to the source. More often than not, that source is poverty. Crime is often a signal that something is terribly wrong with our social safety net, that people are falling through the cracks. Filling up our jails is like putting a band-aid on a broken arm. It looks like we are doing something, but we are not addressing the real problem.
We have seen the Conservative tough on crime attitude before. In Ontario, Mike Harris instituted privately run boot camps in order to get tough on youth crime. These were found to do very little to prevent crime or rehabilitate youth. The facilities charged high rates to taxpayers and did nothing. In combination with these initiatives, the Harris government cut social assistance rates, clawed back the child tax benefit, cancelled funding for second stage housing, cancelled affordable housing projects, reduced funding for women's shelters, and closed down youth initiatives and after school programs.
One particular women's shelter in my riding was forced to cancel a program that offered help to children who were traumatized by domestic violence.
All of the Harris cuts were directed at low income families. It is my greatest fear that we are heading down the same road with the federal Conservatives.
The tough on crime attitude is apparent in Bill C-9 and Bill C-10. Every day I have someone new come to my office asking if funding for one of the many social programs for women and youth will be cut after March 2007.
I am sure some of my fellow members of Parliament are thinking that the link between crime and poverty is not as critical as I suggest. Quite simply, it is. To make my case I want to address the situation of incarcerated women.
Women in the Canadian penitentiary system have the highest rate of HIV and mental illness of any group of women in Canada. Surely a prison is not the institution to respond to someone who is ill.
Forty per cent of incarcerated women are illiterate and 80% have been physically or sexually abused. They were victims long before they resorted to crime. Two-thirds of these women have children. Many had unstable housing at the time of incarceration and 80% were unemployed at the time they were sentenced to jail.
It is obvious that women who are incarcerated are victims of violence and poverty themselves. If we take the brave step to eradicate poverty perhaps we can eliminate much of the need for incarceration.
The Conservative plan to eliminate conditional sentencing will have a significant impact on female inmates in particular. As I previously noted, two-thirds of the women currently incarcerated have children. If conditional sentences are continued for non-violent crimes, these women will have an opportunity to put their lives back on track and may be able to have a relationship with their children. A 10 year jail term would kill any chance of that.
I am very concerned that the Conservatives have gone too far with the bill. Where are the provisions for the prevention of crime?
I referred earlier to the actions of Mike Harris in Ontario. The punitive approach he took to the needs of vulnerable communities has consequences. We live with those consequences now. If a human being is beaten down by the loss of hope and opportunity, eventually that human being will strike back. Have we learned nothing from the Harris legacy?
We have seen an increase in poverty and despair. Last week the United Nations social, economic and cultural council issued a scathing report condemning Canada for being inactive in key areas of social development. We have failed Canadians when it comes to safe, affordable child care, affordable housing and care for abused women. How on earth would the bill change that neglect?