Madam Speaker, I will begin by saying that the Bloc Québécois intends to support this bill at this stage. However, I still think this bill is useless, because our system is perfectly capable of taking into account aggravating circumstances around crimes such as multiple murders, which are perhaps more serious than single murders. I say “perhaps” because some single murders are more serious than multiple murders. I will give some examples in a moment.
All this bill does is delay the possibility of early parole. For a convicted criminal to obtain early parole, a judge has to give him permission to go before a jury and explain why he should get parole. Then, the decision is made by another jury. Clearly, this other jury, like the judge, will consider whether there were two murders or just one. Some single murders are more serious than double murders.
For those who have just tuned in, we are discussing the possibility of amending the Criminal Code so that in the case of multiple murders or murders committed by someone who has already been convicted of murder, eligibility for parole will be delayed, for reasons that can be explained. Multiple murders fall into one of two categories: those that are committed at the same time and those that are committed by someone who was previously convicted of murder. In any event, the sentence for murder is life in prison. We will not do silly things as they do in the United States, where people are put away for several hundred years just to impress the public. However, it is possible to delay eligibility for parole.
Here is how the judge will proceed. When he hears a case involving multiple murders, he must first put the following question to the jury:
You have found the accused guilty of murder. The law requires that I now pronounce a sentence of imprisonment for life against the accused. Do you wish to make any recommendation with respect to the period without eligibility for parole to be served for this murder consecutively to the period without eligibility for parole imposed for the previous murder? You are not required to make any recommendation, but if you do, your recommendation will be considered by me when I make my determination.
So, the jury that heard the case can give its opinion, since it is very familiar with the circumstances surrounding the murder. If the judge ignores their recommendation, he is required to justify his decision. Once again, I completely agree with this. As far as I know, when judges render a decision they must provide their reasoning. The bill states that this must be done orally or in writing. I obviously do not object to this part of the bill. However, I find that it is completely pointless.
As we say, plenty is no plague. But we also say that the perfect is the enemy of the good. In this case, I agree more with the first proverb that plenty is no plague. Forcing judges to do something they would already do seems pointless to me, but it does no harm.
We must understand in what context these decisions are made. Mr. Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, testified before a Senate committee regarding the provisions that allow for early parole, even for individuals sentenced to life in prison. He said:
...the average time served in prison for first degree murder in Canada is 28.4 years. By comparison, the average time served for the same sentence in New Zealand, Scotland, Sweden and Belgium is approximately 12 years. The time served in Canada is already greater than that in most other advanced democracies, including the United States....
Anyone who follows our debates will probably know that the United States is the country that incarcerates the highest number of people, per capita, in the world. But we hold the record on this. If this bill passes, Canada could beat the United States when it comes to the average length of a life sentence. The average length of a life sentence with possibility of parole is 18.5 years in the United States. Members should note that these American statistics do not take into account sentences for which there is no possibility of parole.
Mr. Sapers spoke about what kind of offenders this applies to:
Offenders serving a life sentence in Canada automatically spend at least the first two years of their sentence at a maximum security institution, regardless of their assessed risk. In Canada, a life sentence does, in fact, mean life. Offenders with a life sentence released into the community are supervised until the time of their death.
That is how we know that they do not reoffend. Only in one case of murder was another serious crime committed.
Relative to many other countries that Canada often compares itself to, offenders convicted of first degree murder in this country are already serving a more punitive sentence.
Therefore, I find these provisions to be pointless, especially when we consider the process for obtaining the right to apply for parole to the Parole Board prior to serving 25 years. First, the offender must submit an application to a judge and prove that it is likely, or that there is a substantial likelihood, at least by the preponderance of evidence, that a jury would grant leave to apply. Next, a jury is summoned and it must agree unanimously that the offender may have a hearing before the Parole Board.
Although this system is rather cumbersome, in my mind it is fully justified because, since 1987, only 150 people have been given the right to apply to the Parole Board prior to serving 25 years.
Therefore, this bill would apply to relatively few cases. Even without this bill, such applications would first be considered by a jury that would determine the prisoner's eligibility to apply to the Parole Board, and then by the Parole Board members before parole was granted. The result would be virtually the same. However, as I said, because the discretion of judges is not being restricted, we are prepared to support this bill.
To be clear, we do not consider ourselves to be soft on crime or hard on crime. I really like an expression I heard for the first time when the current Leader of the Opposition gave one of his first speeches in the House, from the bench behind me. He said that it was not about being soft on crime or tough on crime, but it was about being smart on crime and applying the law intelligently.
Everyone understands that the sentences handed down are not determined by just anyone. They must be determined by independent, competent people. Remember that a judge does not live in a bubble; judges read newspapers, listen to the radio, watch television and keep informed. Like many of us, they are perfectly aware of how opinions evolve and of the real dangers threatening society. Based on my experience as a lawyer, I can say that some judges are far tougher than the average member of the public, while others, it is true, are less tough. However, they are all independent and do not need the public's approval, as we do, in order to keep their position or have their mandate renewed, as is the case for members here. Everyone knows that this independence is an important and necessary quality.
In addition, it must be understood that objective factors are important for a judge or anyone else who is handing down a sentence. For example, it is obvious that killing two people is more serious than killing one. But subjective factors also need to be taken into consideration during every sentencing. Why did the person do this? Is it obvious that the person was already leading a criminal life? Their criminal background is considered. What was their motivation? Were they led into this crime by other people? Because, I want to point out that someone can be found guilty of a murder that they did not personally commit but that they were complicit in. Sometimes the accomplices are not as monstrous as the people who committed the crime, but that is not always the case.
I want to give an example that has always stuck with me. “Mom” Boucher, head of the Hells Angels for years, was convicted of the murder a prison guard, a crime that he did not commit himself but that he had ordered or encouraged. The person who committed the murder stopped a prison bus and began shooting, killing one person. When he tried to shoot the other person, the gun jammed and they took off on their motorbike. He was found guilty of one murder instead of two.
Look at the family tragedy that took place last year in Lac Saint-Jean. Desperate parents had asked for help from other family members. No one could have known that their lives would end in such a horrific fashion. These were people who had never been involved in any sort of criminal activity. They were so desperate that they decided that the whole family had to die. In my view, this is a decision that seems to fall within the realms of both psychiatry and justice. If the woman who survived was put on trial, it was because it was found that she was not mentally ill to the point where she was not criminally liable.
I agree that, in order to acquit someone of a crime by reason of insanity, the mental illness must be fairly severe. These parents purchased enough drugs so they could take some themselves and give some to their children.
The husband died. The two children died. The wife survived. It is a multiple murder. Everyone would subjectively agree that Mom Boucher's attitude was much more serious than the attitude of this woman.
When it comes down to it, a balance must always be found when convicting someone of a criminal offence or imposing a sentence on that person There are objective criteria, which are those that must be set out by Parliament; however Parliament cannot be expected to determine all of the subjective factors that could arise in each case. That is why we need the people who impose sentences to be fair, educated in matters of law and, above all, independent. They examine all sides of the issue and render a judgment. We would like to invent a system for imposing sentences that would do that reliably.
If the Bloc were opposed to this, then I would oppose the Bloc. However, I personally believe that such a system—one in which independent judges determine the appropriate sentence in specific cases—is fair, and that sentences should be individualized as much as possible. Apparently, this is not what the government thinks.
That is basically why, in this case, we agree on the bill. We think it is unnecessary. It will apply to only a very small number of people. Since 1987, only 150 people have been granted parole before 25 years were up. This shows that those provisions are applied very cautiously. However, it is good for the government to be able to say it is tough on crime. That is the main objective. Our Republican neighbours to the south have taught us how to win elections and so we are still adopting these provisions. Personally, I think that is the main motive behind a bill like this one.
Quite frankly, despite the contempt I have for their motives, I nevertheless recognize that this bill certainly does not do any harm, because it still allows the judiciary sufficient discretion. The minister is always telling us that wherever he goes in public, everyone always talks to him. I would remind the minister that perhaps a jury—since a jury must be involved—is also representative, even more representative of public opinion, compared to people who show up to say a few words to him when he appears in public.
Since it will be decided by a jury and since the provisions are not mandatory for judges who, if they make an exception, must justify it—which is only right and what they already do—we will therefore support these provisions.
Once again we are confident that our position is not based on ideology, unless people believe that defending the fact that sentences should be not only dissuasive, but also fair, individualized and determined by well-informed, independent judges is ideological. If that is ideological, then many other countries share our ideology. I have already mentioned an interesting fact about other similar countries. Mr. Sapers listed them. In other countries, like New Zealand, England and Belgium, the average sentence served by individuals convicted of murder is 12 years. Here it is 28.4 years. So it is safe to say that we are well above the average.