Mr. Speaker, today we are examining a purely doctrinaire bill that seeks to strike down a piece of legislation and measures that have met all the objectives set, that ensure public safety and that incorporate decisions made by juries representing a wide cross-section of the population. In addition, no studies have been conducted that show the failings of this legislation; we are acting on mere perception. I find it shocking that the members who spoke before me based their remarks on misperceptions. As legislators, what should we do in this type of case? I think that the voice of conscience must take precedence over public rumour.
Certain important things, such as liberty, justify me in listening to my conscience over public rumour, especially since the rumour in question is volatile and could change quickly, as evidenced by complaints about unanimous decisions rendered by juries.
What does this legislation do? It ensures that people who have been convicted of first or second degree murder cannot apply for parole.
First degree murder, which is currently defined as voluntary and planned homicide, is the most serious. First degree murder also includes murders committed in certain very serious circumstances, such as murder committed against a police officer or prison guard, murder committed as a terrorist act or murder involving sexual assault. The mandatory sentence for first degree murder is life in prison. However, those who have committed this type of murder can be eligible for parole after 25 years. It is important to note that these individuals are not freed after 25 years. In fact, most first degree murderers who apply are not granted parole; those who are can apply only after 25 years and so their application is reviewed only after a certain period of time has passed.
The minimum sentence for second degree murder is also life in prison; however, the judge who hears the case determines the parole ineligibility period, which can vary from 10 to 20 years. Nevertheless, those convicted of second degree murder cannot apply for parole until they have served 15 years in prison.
In 1976, the government thought that this legislation was necessary when it decided to abolish the death penalty. We still needed some kind of penalty that was a deterrent and life in prison certain was a deterrent. A parole system already existed, and it was decided that in the case of murder, the period before being eligible for parole needed to be much longer. That is why we have the periods that I mentioned.
In 1997, the legislation was amended to ensure that someone who committed multiple murders, or murders in some other circumstances, were not eligible for parole before 25 years. What was the purpose of that law? The Minister of Public Safety, who was known at that time as the Solicitor General, said it best.
A period of incarceration, with hope of parole, and with the built-in additional incentive for the inmate, and protection for the guards, of a review of that parole eligibility after 15 years is necessarily better than a sentence of death because it removes the possibility of an irreversible error of execution.
Thus, this was added to the Criminal Code in the hope that it would provide an incentive for long-term offenders to rehabilitate themselves and, therefore, afford more protection to prison guards.
It seems as though this goal was accomplished. There must always be some kind of hope when someone receives a sentence that could, in most cases, make them desperate and, since they have nothing to lose, cause them to do something worse.
But why 15 years? We realized that in countries such as England, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Scotland, New Zealand, Switzerland and Sweden, that the average prison time was 15 years, and 12 years in Sweden.
And what were the results? One thing is certain: it cannot be said that this law was abused. In April 2009, when statistics were studied in order to review the law, it was found that although 991 offenders had been deemed eligible for judicial review—people sentenced to life in prison without any possibility of parole depending on whether they had committed first or second degree murder—court decisions had been rendered in only 174 of the cases. I have taken these numbers from a Library of Parliament study. Of these 174 offenders, 144 had been declared eligible to apply for parole. So 30 were not eligible to begin with. Then, only 131 were granted parole, representing just over 13% of those who had been deemed eligible to apply for a judicial review. Can we really deprive all those convicted of murder in Canada of all hope and not allow 13% of them to be completely rehabilitated?
We really need to understand that the murder cases we hear about are always the worst ones. But not all murderers fill us with the same horror as the case of Clifford Olson and the more recent case of Colonel Williams. In fact, we know that in 84% of murder cases, the murderer knew the victim. In my career in criminal law as well as prosecution and defence since 1966, I realized that murder is a peculiar crime in that it cannot be said that it is usually committed by people who would be considered criminals, meaning that they have led a criminal life or that they are regularly involved in criminal activities. They are not all street gang or organized crime members. Quite the opposite. People kill for all sorts of reasons: often it is out of vengeance, on impulse, for money, but quite often the murderer knows the victim, and some examples in Quebec last year prove that. The most serious example is that of the mafia godfather, Nicolo Rizzuto, who was evidently killed by a very competent hitman.
But there is also the case of the surgeon in Saint-Jérôme who had an outstanding reputation and who was loved by his patients and the community. But when his wife, also a doctor, left him, he could not accept it and turned on his two children, killing them.
There was also that terrible family tragedy in Lac-Saint-Jean, where the father and mother of a family were desperate and decided that life was not worth living, either for them or for their children. They bought enough drugs to kill the entire family. When the police entered the home, the entire family had taken the drugs. The police were able to revive the mother, but the father and two children were dead. The mother was convicted of this triple murder. It is also thought that some murders, for which the trials are not over yet, are honour killings.
Obviously there is a whole host of situations that lead people to kill. In many of these cases, it might not be so bad after 15 or 20 years to see whether we could trust certain individuals again, especially considering the financial and social costs involved. In my opinion, the social cost of incarceration is much greater than the financial cost, which in and of itself is not insignificant.
I am told that the average cost of incarcerating an offender in Canada is $110,000. It is probably higher in maximum security penitentiaries. Only 2% of that money goes to the various programs for the rehabilitation and well-being of the inmates. Most of the money is required for satisfying security rules: walls, barbed wire, electronic systems, armed guards, three shifts and more for covering vacations, etc. All of this runs up considerable costs.
Let us be clear: when individuals are granted parole, they are not entirely free; they are under mandatory supervision. When people go to a halfway house, which is no different than prison except for the absence of bars and walls, they are still not free to move around. They have to eat and sleep as they are told, just like in prison. They are denied their freedom. They are far from being entirely free.
Of those who have benefited from this measure—only 13% of all those sentenced to life in prison for murder—that is, the 125 offenders who have been released on parole so far, 95 were actively supervised in the community and 15 were reincarcerated for breaching a condition of their parole.
So this is proof that they are closely supervised and that they must respect their conditions. However, of those 15 individuals, only two committed an offence. One committed an armed robbery and the other committed a drug-related offence. As we can see, public safety was not at risk.
In addition, the bill abolishes the system. Of course the system cannot be abolished for those who have already been sentenced by judges, who surely must have taken into account the fact that these people could eventually apply for parole. Furthermore, in cases of second-degree murder, the judges would have had to determine the length of the sentence before the accused could apply for parole.
So, there are still some people in the system. This means that if we were to pass this bill today and it were to receive royal assent, the legislation would not come into force for 15 years. In fact, it would apply only to those who commit crimes after it passes. Considering the time it would take for the bill to be passed and approved, it would probably take about 17 years for it to be fully enforced. It will eventually be enforced and this will complicate matters for the remaining offenders already in the system. First of all, inmates engaged in a rehabilitation process, who are under the care of psychiatrists and other staff, are sometimes told to wait a little longer because they need to be examined a little longer before they apply. This will no longer be possible, because the rules will be rigid and absolute. Inmates will have to apply after 15 years and will have only 90 days to do so.
After 15 years, the inmate has often been moved. Preparing his file takes several months. Some lawyers who deal with these cases testified before the committee in this regard. Furthermore, Correctional Service Canada acknowledged that preparing a file could take more than six months, but the application must be made within 90 days. The government has argued a great deal that offenders can apply for parole repeatedly, every two years. That is not true. Under the current law, offenders can go before a jury only if they obtain the permission of a judge, who must determine whether there is a reasonable prospect that the application will succeed. In the bill before us, it must be shown that there is a substantial likelihood that the application will succeed.
Then the jury must make a decision. If it refuses to grant parole, the jury may determine a period of time during which the offender is not entitled to make another application for parole. Thus, the idea that offenders can apply after 15, 17, 19 and 21 years is not true in practice. The government has been unable to give a single example where there have been such repeated requests.
I would like to point out that, on the weekend, we received a copy of a letter to the Prime Minister from the Church Council on Justice and Corrections. This organization points out that the government's plan to send more Canadians to prison for longer periods is not a good solution and that higher levels of incarceration in society in general do not have a deterrent effect. There must be a deterrent; however, prison as a deterrent must be used in moderation. I am quickly summarizing. I agree with them that this does not respect the fundamental principles of religion, such as caring for one's neighbour and its ramifications, and forgiveness. They believe that man is imperfect, a sinner, but that he can rehabilitate himself.
The bill is useless and not supported by any study, whereas the law the Conservatives want to amend has given good results. There is only one reason for what they are doing: they want to flog their ideology. I would remind my colleagues that everyone the minister said he met with could very well be called to be on a jury that hears these cases. I do not understand why, suddenly, the minister is afraid of their opinion and does not want more offenders to go before them.