Mr. Speaker, conditional sentences became a sentencing option over 13 years ago with the proclamation in September 1996 of Bill C-41, sentencing reform, chapter 22 of the Statutes of Canada, 1995. The original intention of conditional sentences was to promote the protection of the public by seeking to separate the most serious offenders from the community while less serious offenders could remain among other members of society with the effective community-based alternatives while adhering to appropriate conditions.
Conditional sentences were to provide an intermediate sentencing option between probation and incarceration to permit less serious offenders to remain in the community under strict conditions if their sentence was less than two years, the court was satisfied that allowing the offender to serve the sentence of imprisonment in the community would not endanger the safety of the community, and their offence was not punishable by a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment.
An amendment was made in 1997 to add a requirement that the court be satisfied that sentencing the offender to a conditional sentence of imprisonment would be consistent with the fundamental purpose and principles of sentencing set out in section 718 to 718.2 of the Criminal Code.
In 2000, the Supreme Court of Canada held in R. v. Proulx that a sentencing court must first find that a sentence of imprisonment of less than two years is appropriate before considering whether the sentence can be served in the community under conditional sentence order. In other words, a court must be of the opinion that a probation order and/or fine would not adequately address the seriousness of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender.
Second, a penitentiary sentence, a term of imprisonment of more than two years, would not be necessary to do so and a sentence of less than two years would be appropriate. Once this decision is made a court would then determine whether the sentence of imprisonment of less than two years may be served in the community, bearing in mind the other prerequisites I referred to earlier, community safety for one.
Over the years conditional sentencing decisions that appeared on their face to be questionable have contributed to a loss of public confidence in this sanction and therefore in the administration of justice.
A number of observers, including some provincial and territorial counterparts, became increasingly concerned with the wide array of offences that received conditional sentences. By the time our government took office in 2006, it had become clear to us that further limits to the availability of conditional sentences were needed. Our government responded to these concerns when it tabled Bill C-9, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (conditional sentence of imprisonment), on May 4, 2006. Bill C-9 was referred to the justice committee just one month later on June 6, 2006.
Bill C-9, in its original form, proposed to eliminate conditional sentences for offences prosecuted by indictment and punishable by a maximum sentence of 10 years or more. It was and still is the opinion of this government that offences prosecuted by indictment and punishable by a maximum sentence of imprisonment of 10 years, 14 years, or life are serious offences that should not result in a conditional sentence order. This is so even if the court ultimately finds that a sentence of less than two years is proportionate to the circumstances of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender.
Bill C-9 as originally drafted would have caught serious crimes such as weapons offences, offences committed against children and serious property crimes. However, opposition members thought that the scope of Bill C-9 went too far in limiting conditional sentences and amended it to only capture terrorism offences, organized crime offences and serious personal injury offences as defined in section 752 of the Criminal Code that are punishable by a maximum sentence of 10 years or more and prosecuted by indictment.
This was similar to the approach taken in Bill C-70 which the previous government had tabled in the fall of 2005, but which died on the order paper with the call of the general election later that year. The amendments to the bill created some strange results. First, the opposition amendments to Bill C-9 created a situation where offences punishable by a maximum of 14 years' imprisonment or life are not all considered to be serious crimes. I would like to remind members that these are the highest maximum available in the code.
Second, as a result of amendments to Bill C-9, offences contained in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act are not excluded from eligibility for a conditional sentence unless they were committed as part of a criminal organization. Consequently, the production, importation and trafficking in a schedule I drug such as heroin would not be caught and would be eligible for a conditional sentence of imprisonment. However, as members of the House know, our government has proposed mandatory minimum penalties for serious drug offences. I would expect that when the legislation is enacted, as I hope will soon be the case, these offences would be ineligible for a conditional sentence.
Until the coming into force of Bill C-9 on December 1, 2007, sentencing courts had only to interpret serious personal injury offences for the purpose of determining whether the threshold for a dangerous or long-term offender application had been met, because that term only applied to the dangerous and long-term offender provisions. Since Bill C-9 came into force, courts have wrestled with the interpretation of serious personal injury offences in the context of conditional sentences.
The Alberta Court of Appeal in Ponticorvo, 2009, reviewed its decisions in Neves, 1999, where is considered the definition of serious personal injury offence in the context of dangerous offender provisions. In that context, the court concluded that section 752 required that the offence considered be objectively serious. However, in the context of conditional sentencing, that court of appeal found that the use or attempted use of violence sufficed and did not require any overlay of objective seriousness. In other words, it ruled that it should be easier for the Crown to establish that an offence is a serious personal injury offence in the context of a conditional sentence than it is in the context of a dangerous offender.
While that is an appropriate interpretation, there have been some cases that do not follow the decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal and continue to apply the guidelines developed in the context of dangerous offenders in determining whether an offence is a serious personal injury offence.
Another concern with the definition of serious personal injury offence is that serious property crime, such as fraud, could still be eligible for a conditional sentence. We are well aware of recent examples of the devastating impact of fraudulent conduct. Victims who have lost their life savings have called for strengthened sentences for those types of crimes. It is hard to disagree with their concerns, especially considering the fact that fraud, which is punishable by a maximum sentence of 14 years, would still be eligible for a conditional sentence, despite reforms enacted by Bill C-9. It is clear to me, and I suggest to many Canadians, that greater clarity and consistency is needed to eliminate the availability of conditional sentences for serious violent and serious property offences.
For these reasons, Bill C-16 proposes to remove the reference to serious personal injury offences in 742.1, to make all offences punishable by 14 years or life ineligible for a conditional sentence. This would make the offence of fraud and many other crimes ineligible for conditional sentences.
Bill C-16 would also clearly make offences prosecuted by indictment and punishable by 10 years that result in bodily harm, involve the import, export, trafficking or production of drugs or involve the use of weapons ineligible for conditional sentence.
I hope all members in the House will support the bill. It is important that this new bill comes forward to control the use of conditional sentencing.