Mr. Speaker, it is certainly my honour to speak. I guess I was the bookend today on both ends of question period. I will continue my remarks on Bill C-9, an act to amend the Criminal Code on conditional sentence of imprisonment.
Even before this legislation was drafted, the Prime Minister determined that we needed to get out to communities across the country to talk first-hand with Canadians and hear what measures they would like implemented. Last summer we put together the task force on safe streets and healthy communities and several party members, including the current finance minister, travelled across the country speaking to police officers, crime victims, social agencies and many others connected with the justice system.
As a result, we decided we needed to open up the Criminal Code and make some real changes that we believe will have a significant impact on the criminal justice landscape of this country.
From a local perspective, Niagara Regional Police Chief Wendy Southall, once she had a chance to review the bill, offered this comment:
Obviously from a Niagara perspective, as well as an Ontario and Canadian Chiefs of Police perspective, we're all focused on the significant consequences that must await people who possess illegal firearms and use them in the commission of an offence. And I believe these legislative changes are certainly a step in the right direction. Coupling these changes with enhanced border security will definitely have an impact upon the safety of the people of the Niagara Region.
I agree with Police Chief Southall and so does this government. In order to achieve our goal of safer communities, there needs to be a four pillared approach that involves: stronger penalties for those committing violent crimes; long term crime prevention plans that target young people, especially those at risk; realistic and effective rehabilitation programs; and finally, recognition within the justice system of victims' rights. I would like to speak directly to each of these four points.
In terms of justice, Bill C-9 is very clear. Criminals have to understand there are going to be consequences for their actions and we are serious about sending them that message. If people commit a serious crime, rest assured they will do serious time.
Any criminals convicted of a serious crime, including violent and sexual offences, major drug offences, crimes against children, and impaired driving causing death or bodily harm will be required to serve their sentences in prison, not at home. In fact, any criminal convicted of a crime that has a maximum prison sentence of 10 years or more will be ineligible for a conditional sentence.
The second pillar is prevention. Prevention begins with sound economic policy and good social programs. Our budget includes $20 million, a commitment to invest in youth programs that target young people at risk of becoming involved with guns, gangs and drugs. Ideally, we need to put tools and textbooks in the hands of our young people, not guns and not gangs, tools that will help them realize they can grow up to lead successful and productive lives. That means working with parents and agencies in my community, such as RAFT or Niagara Child and Youth Services, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the countless others who work with troubled young people who feel they have no real choice or no real opportunities.
Everyone in our community should share a strong focus when it comes to working with our youth. We all need to play a role and take the time to help build our youth, and help them become positive members of our society. Our justice minister has been asked to put together a council of individuals to advise him on how to make these investments.
The third pillar is rehabilitation and reintegration. Both are an important component of our justice system. Rehabilitation programs help contribute to a strong community by helping all members of our society make a positive contribution.
Our new government understands this and has made rehabilitation a key component of this strategy, but let me be clear: justice and rehabilitation are not one and the same. We firmly believe that those who commit criminal acts must pay their debt to society and their victims, but we must not forget that they may one day earn the opportunity to re-enter society. We all have a responsibility to provide effective programs to ensure that those who have served their time return to society with the tools they need to become productive citizens. We must make every effort to assist these people and prevent them from returning to the same circumstances that led them to commit a crime in the first place.
The fourth pillar of justice is the protection of victims' rights. Perhaps this is the most important aspect of our new government's plan to provide stronger rights for the victims of crime. Twenty-six million dollars has been set aside in the budget to implement programs and provide better services for victims of crime to give them a voice in a system that often considers them last, if at all.
New options and programs are being developed to ensure that the federal government can appropriately address the needs of victims. Funds for programs such as financial assistance for victims to attend National Parole Board hearings and for covering travel expenses will ensure that victims are not treated like criminals but respected in their time of need, not ignored but listened to, not embarrassed but embraced.
Victims are the ones whose rights are too often discarded in our efforts to make sure that criminals' rights are protected. It is time for victims of crime to know that they matter too. In fact, they matter most.
In closing, I will acknowledge that even the toughest laws are not going to prevent all crimes, but our new legislation is based upon similar measures enacted in the state of Virginia in 1997, measures that provided positive results. Through 1998 in Richmond, the capital of Virginia, a city with one of the highest murder rates in the United States, homicides dropped by 40%. In fact, following the implementation of measures like those we have in front of the House today, the homicide rate in 1998 was the lowest in a decade. I can only hope that these measures have a similar impact on our communities.
In my community, for example, the Niagara area, a crime is committed with a gun every 36 hours. In 2005 there were 3,246 violent crimes committed in the Niagara area, with an unprecedented 14 homicides. This cannot and will not continue. I want nothing more for my community and for all Canadians than I want for my own family, a city where we can all feel safe and a country where we can all be safe to walk the streets. I do not understand why others would not want that for their communities and for their own families.
As I have outlined, getting tough on crime is a four-pillared approach that involves justice, prevention, rehabilitation and, finally, victims' rights. This approach is not necessarily new and it is not big on spin. It is a straightforward approach to fixing what is wrong in our country, our society and our communities. Bill C-9 sets out to do that. It puts the right focus on conditional sentencing and ensures that when a serious crime is committed there will be consequences. Those consequences, respectfully, do not include a penalty that consists of a weekend at home.