Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak to Bill concerning offences involving firearms. This bill is a follow-up to Bill , concerning reduced access to conditional sentences.
I would like to make it clear that the Bloc Québécois is concerned about and condemns all offences involving firearms. Everybody understands that offences involving firearms are serious, and that is why, since 1997, the Bloc Québécois has been steadfast in its demands for a mandatory gun registry, a public registry that police officers consult 6,500 times a day. We believe it is inconsistent to seek to implement a mandatory minimum sentencing strategy for offences involving firearms while attacking the very existence of a gun registry, which is a true public safety tool, as I will demonstrate.
Bill imposes mandatory minimum sentences. Right off the top, there is a problem with that because when it comes to sentencing, when a court must sentence an individual, the first consideration must be individualization. The judge must consider all of the factors that shape the context of the offence. That is the first consideration.
It is certainly true that the Department of Justice—not the Bloc Québécois, not the NDP, not the Liberals—awarded contracts to carry out studies. It asked professionals, in this case criminologists, to carry out studies. They looked at the experience of countries that had adopted mandatory minimum penalties, in particular for crimes committed with a firearm, to see if that had any deterrent effect. After all, that is the goal. There are certainly some maximum penalties in the Criminal Code. Those penalties must be severe when one is dealing with crimes committed with a firearm because the potential for destruction is extremely high and very real. Usually, we put our trust in the judge and we can say that a judge or a magistrate, whether in a trial court or an appeal court, should be able to give proper weight to the facts and circumstances and determine the appropriate sentence.
Every time there is a mandatory minimum penalty, there is cause for concern. I recall that the Department of Justice called on one of the most renowned criminologists, Professor Julian Roberts, of the University of Ottawa, who testified before the Standing Committee on Justice during the review of Bill and Bill . What did that criminologist say about a study carried out in 1977 by the Department of Justice? He concluded that mandatory prison sentences had been introduced by many western countries, among them, Australia, New Zealand and others. He emphasized that the studies that reviewed the impact of those laws showed variable results in terms of the prison population and no discernable effect on the crime rate.
Julian Roberts, who was asked to review all the existing studies on this subject, concluded that, in the case of mandatory minimum sentences, in those countries where there are mandatory minimum sentences no positive or negative effect on the crime rate can be seen.
When the appeared before the committee, he was unable to table any scientific evidence to contradict those words.
The bill provides that, for some 20 offences—of which the most serious are attempted murder, discharge of a firearm with intent, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping, hostage taking, robbery and extortion—where there is a minimum sentence of three years, a minimum sentence of five years should be imposed and that where a five-year minimum sentence is now provided, a sentence of seven years should be imposed.
Initially—and this was defeated in committee—there were even offences for which, in the case of a second offence, the minimum sentence could be up to 10 years. I emphasize that minimum sentences remove any kind of discretionary power a judge may have to consider the circumstances and evaluate the factors related to the incident. That is extremely prejudicial to the administration of justice.
Why should we not worry about a government that says it wants to get tough on criminals? Committing an offence with a firearm is certainly reprehensible, and we are not being complacent about that. We recognize that there may be cases where the judge will impose a 10 year sentence. There may even be cases, for example if there was an attempted murder or a homicide, where the sentence could be as much as 25 years. It is quite acceptable to have such sentences. But it is never acceptable to rely on an automatic process and to remove the judge's discretion in assessing the events which led to the offence.
Let us take a look at societies. If imprisonment through mandatory minimum sentences really were useful in making societies more secure, reliance on such penalties would necessarily have a visible positive effect. The United States would be a model society. The incarceration rate is 10 times higher in the United States than in Canada. Mandatory minimum sentences are used much more in the United States than in Canada. I have some statistics that show that following the American model with more imprisonment, for longer periods, is a bad strategy. Here are some of the statistics: three times more homicides are committed in the United States than in Canada. Fewer violent crimes are committed in Quebec than anywhere else in Canada.
Look at the Conservatives and their legal activism. They have introduced about 10 bills. When they are good, we support them. For example, we supported the bill on street racing. We supported the bill on DNA data banks. In the 1990s, it was the Bloc Québécois that applied pressure, especially my former colleague from Berthier, Mr. Justice Michel Bellehumeur, who was appointed to the bench because of his merits. Mr. Justice Michel Bellehumeur campaigned, with my support, to create a new law to deal with a new phenomenon: organized crime and criminal motorcycle gangs. There were 35 of them in Canada around 1995. I well remember the former justice minister Allan Rock—who became Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations but has been recalled since, if I am correctly informed—who was kind enough to let me meet some senior public servants. He attended the meeting as well. At the time, criminal biker gangs were fighting among themselves for control of the narcotics trade in our big cities, including Montreal. I well remember discussing this with senior public servants, who felt we could break up organized crime using just the existing conspiracy provisions in the Criminal Code.
I was convinced, as were Michel Bellehumeur and all the hon. Bloc members then, that a new offence was needed. At the Bloc’s initiative and thanks to its resolute leadership—the government and public service did not really see things this way at the time—some new offences were created, such as working on behalf of an organized gang. At the time, we had the three-fives theory: if five people committed five offences for a gang over the previous five years, they would be charged with a new offence established by Bill C-95. However, the police told us that this was not working and we had to go from five to three. This amendment was taken up by the government in Bill .
All of this is to say that the Bloc Québécois is not soft on crime. When we need to clamp down and ensure that our toughest criminals are behind bars, we are ready to do so. We have always brought forward very positive proposals. In just a few days, the Bloc Québécois is going to announce its proposals for improving the criminal justice system. That is our responsibility as parliamentarians and as a party with seats in the House of Commons.
It is extremely contradictory—and I am sure this has not escaped my colleagues—to repeatedly introduce bills to toughen sentences and yet not attack the root of the problem, which is granting early parole to some offenders. We in the Bloc Québécois will have an opportunity to express our views on this in the near future. But I am certain that all my caucus colleagues would agree that the government should have tackled the parole system in January, when this Parliament began. That would have been a wiser course of action.
Moreover, a parliamentary committee had expressed concern about a number of provisions that could raise concerns among members of the public. My colleague Pierrette Venne was sitting on the committee at the time. Instead, the government chose an approach that implied that Canadian communities are safer when mandatory minimum sentences are in place, even though scientific literature does not support this view. Few witnesses aside from the police testified before the committee that our communities would be safer if we had mandatory minimum sentences.
I would like to quote an eminent criminologist, André Normandeau, who has researched and written extensively about the concept of neighbourhood or community policing, which has become a reality. I do not know whether community policing exists in English Canada, but it has become commonplace in Quebec. I will quote him directly so as not to be accused of misrepresenting what he said.
André Normandeau, a criminologist at the Université de Montréal, said:
|| Minimum sentencing encourages defence lawyers to negotiate plea bargains for their clients in exchange for charges that do not require minimum sentencing.
This shows the perverse effect of plea bargaining between defence lawyers and lawyers for the crown to drop charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences for charges that do not. Mr. Normandeau added:
|| Minimum sentencing can also force a judge to acquit an individual rather than be obliged to sentence that individual to a penalty the judge considers excessive under the circumstances, for cases in which an appropriate penalty would be a conditional sentence, community service or a few weeks in jail.
It was evidence like that that prompted all my predecessors, be it Richard Marceau, the former member for Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, or all my predecessors in the Bloc Québécois, to consistently say the same thing. My position in this matter is not original.
I am part of the long tradition in the Bloc Québécois. Every time we have mandatory minimum sentences and someone is trying to cut into judges' discretion to impose the sentence they consider appropriate, we think that it is not going to be in the interests of the administration of justice.
Some witnesses even took this line of reasoning farther, and gave us an example that much ink was spilled over at the time, and that got a lot of media coverage: the Latimer case. I do not know whether our colleagues will remember the Latimer case. He was a father in western Canada who helped his daughter to put an end to her horrific suffering. It was a case of assisted suicide. However, assisted suicide was not recognized as such by the court, and he was found guilty of homicide.
Consider what the witnesses told us in committee. To demonstrate the rigidity of mandatory minimum sentences, we can cite the case of Robert Latimer, the father who killed his severely disabled 12-year-old daughter. He killed her—and we have to remember this—out of compassion. This man was convicted of second-degree murder. In the Criminal Code, second-degree murder is an automatic sentence, so the judge was automatically forced to sentence him to 25 years in prison, when the jury—because this was a jury trial—wanted a much more lenient sentence.
These are some examples, and I know that if my colleague from has an opportunity to speak today he will also point out flaws in Bill and the extremely pernicious and perverse nature of mandatory minimum sentences. This does not mean that we are lenient when we have to deal harshly with crimes that are committed with a firearm.
I said earlier that the Bloc Québécois would have been extremely happy if, when we began our examination, we had been able to discuss the entire question of parole. That is quite unfortunate. I do not know whether the expression "dishonest" is parliamentary, but I will use it. What is dishonest in the Conservatives' discourse is that it suggests, when we look at what is in their legislative arsenal and the nine bills that have been introduced, that we are living in a society where violence is getting worse, where crime rates are on the rise, a society that is therefore much more disturbing than the one we lived in 10, 15 or 20 years ago.
Statistics show a completely different reality. That does not mean that we must avoid imposing sentences or controlling some individuals. We can all easily understand that imprisonment is the appropriate solution in certain cases. That is obvious. However, let us look a little more closely at the statistics. In the recent past, from 1992 to 2004, the number of violent crimes has been decreasing in Canada. When I say violent crimes, I mean homicide, attempted murder, assault, sexual assault, kidnapping and robbery. There were 1,084 of those crimes per 100,000 inhabitants.
At the beginning of the period, there were 1,084 of those crimes per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2004, that number had fallen to 946 per 100,000 inhabitants. In fact, Quebec, with 725 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants is the place with the fewest violent crimes. The number of homicides also diminished. In short, in general terms, the Conservative logic does not stand statistical analysis.
In concluding, I will say that we are taking all crimes involving firearms very seriously. We remain convinced that the best way to counter such crime is obviously a public firearm registry with compulsory registration. We know that the present registry is consulted 6,500 times daily by police forces across Canada.
We do not believe in the reasoning behind mandatory minimum sentences and that is why we cannot support Bill .
Mr. Speaker, as I was saying to my colleague from the Bloc, it is now my turn to point out all the inconsistencies of the two opposition parties to my right.
However, let me start with an acknowledgment that this is a piece of legislation that does divide the House. I think that division is also reflective of the situation in the country. I do not believe that there is a member in this House who does not want to do whatever we can do to protect our citizens. That is the absolute first and primary responsibility of any democratically elected government. It is not a responsibility that I believe any members in this House ignore or shirk in any way.
What Bill is really about is what methods best protect our citizens.
There are givens. The NDP recognizes that the overall violent crime rate in Canada has been dropping. I think this is quite provable by solid statistics for at least the last 25 years, as we have been keeping better statistics around crime rates. There is really no debate with regard to this. It is an accepted fact.
However, there are within that criminal activity certain areas where in fact from time to time we will see spikes in certain crimes or where some crime rates in fact are going up. One of the areas in which we have seen an increase has been crime with the use of guns, the use of handguns and illegal guns in particular, but long guns as well, and involving street gangs and youths in particular.
I have to say that most of those guns that get into the hands of the street gangs and the youth of this country and are then used in serious criminal activity almost always flow from organized crime activity. Many of the guns are smuggled in from the United States, where organized crime is the major actor behind that conduct.
That is the reality of what we are faced with in this country at this time. What we attempted to do with this legislation was to take a significant overreaction by the Conservative Party in the form of the present government and reduce the more radical parts of the bill to achieve what we felt was the proper method to respond to that specific crime statistic and crime conduct.
Is this perfect? I will be the first to admit that I do not think so. Is it better than what the Conservatives proposed? Yes. Is it better than what the Liberals proposed in the last election? If the Liberals' promise had been carried out, there would have been even more severe minimum mandatory penalties, not nearly as well focused, and that is a key point.
I also want to say for my colleagues from the Bloc that it is interesting to hear them rant against this bill, but we in this House passed mandatory minimums to fight impaired driving. Again, it was a condition in the country that had to be dealt with. The rate of impaired driving was going up. The casualities on the ground, on our streets and in our cities were horrendous. We used mandatory minimums to deal with it, and the Bloc supported it, as did the Liberals and the Conservatives and my party.
In the last Parliament, led to a significant degree by a charge from both the Bloc and the Conservatives, we introduced a whole bunch of mandatory minimums into child abuse charges, some of which I simply could not accept because they were so overblown and so irresponsible, in effect, but the Bloc members supported that. Not only did their member on the committee who led the charge support it, but when the bill came to the House they supported it 100%. There were a lot of mandatory minimums in that bill.
As the last speaker mentioned, the Bloc members also led the charge in introducing, properly so, mandatory minimums with regard to organized crime.
In each case, with the exception of some of those in the child abuse file, it was appropriate for this legislature to do that. It was appropriate because we had a specific problem in this country with regard to that criminal activity. If we are going to use mandatory minimums, we have to be sure we use them in a focused manner.
Again, I am highly critical of the Liberals. When they were in power, they introduced between 45 to 60 new mandatory minimums, depending on how we use the sections, in their 13 years in government. Thus, when they stand in the House and criticize the NDP for supporting mandatory minimums, they are being highly hypocritical, quite frankly, in particular because they used that method so often that it loses its effectiveness.
We saw this in particular with regard to impaired driving. We put together a program in this country, led by citizens' advocates, our police, our judiciary and, yes, members of the House at that time. The message that went out to the country was that we had a major problem with impaired driving and our laws were not adequate to deal with it, not only with regard to the actual legislation but also the enforcement.
In that period, we brought in the use of the breathalyzer, which as an enforcement tool was phenomenal. I happened to be practising criminal law at that time, doing defence work, and I know how easy it was to get people off on the impaired driving charges at that time, but as soon as the breathalyzer came in and there was a scientific method to show that the person in fact was impaired, the ability to get acquittals dropped dramatically.
We had a really good enforcement methodology, a good technique and a new technology. As governments, both provincial and federal, we spent the money to make sure that our police officers across the country had access to that technology. We had a major advertising and promotion campaign to fight against impaired driving, to get the message out to society at all levels that it was wrong, and yes, we introduced mandatory minimums. We had mandatory minimum suspensions for licences. We had mandatory minimum fines. Also, if there was more than one conviction, if there were subsequent convictions, the person was looking at jail time.
That is the system we have in this country. Again, is it perfect and has it stopped impaired driving completely? No, but we have reduced the rate of impaired driving in this country quite dramatically.
That is what we are trying to do. That is what the NDP is trying to do in supporting the legislation as it has been amended. We have to do the same thing. We must have legislation in place that sends a message from this House, the House that governs this country, that we are going to be very serious in how we treat individual criminals who are convicted of serious crimes involving guns. This is the message that goes out with the passage of the bill.
At the same time, we know it is not enough. In fact, I again will be critical of the government and the Conservatives for trying to get the message out that this is the be-all and end-all and we are going to make our streets safe by passing this particular bill, 100%. That is a false message. That is not what is going to happen. It is going to have some impact, but we need to be doing much more. In fact, the impact of the legislation, I always say, is relatively minor compared to what we have to do in other areas, enforcement being one of those other two areas.
Part of this was interesting in that we had the opportunity to go to Toronto and take some evidence from the chief of police there, Chief Blair, and hear about some of the experiences he had in dealing with some of the street gangs, the exact people we are trying to get at with this legislation, and about some of the methods he put into place. He was able to do so only because additional moneys were given to him by the province of Ontario and the city of Toronto to focus specifically on the gangs and specifically on gun crime.
He was quite successful. The violent crime rate in one area of the city was reduced by 40% in one year. It was a phenomenal experience and is attributable to his skill and that of his officers, but also, at the governmental level, resources were deployed. We need to do that in a number of other communities across the country. The government needs to help in that regard, because certainly there are provinces, and I think in particular of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where additional resources are needed for provinces that are not as wealthy as Ontario and do not have the ability to deploy resources.
Coming back to it, what we are dealing with here is legislation, yes, recognizing that it is of small impact, and enforcement, yes, because it has a much greater impact, but there is a third area in which we need to be doing much more work. Again I am critical of the government because it has not spent enough money. There are all sorts of programs that need to be deployed, again specifically targeting youth, and particularly the youth in our inner core cities, not exclusively but primarily, programs that will get them before they get attracted to those street gangs and get involved in criminal activity at a very young age.
That is not happening right now. The government has spent very little money in this regard. It is not well targeted, but at the very base it is no sufficient. We can pass this bill, and we should, but we cannot say to the country that we really are doing what we are supposed to be doing to prevent these crimes from happening unless we put additional resources into crime prevention. There are a lot of good programs out there, a number of which we can identify, and we should be assisting them to a much greater extent than we have up to this point.
There is one final area that I want to cover with regard to the nature of this bill and what could have been done in addition to it. I have said this in the House repeatedly. Every time I get up to speak to a government crime bill, I raise it, and I am going to do so again. Perhaps at some point the government will finally get the message.
I accuse the government of this and I will convict it as well: the government has been guilty of highlighting specific crimes with specific bills. Then the government is critical of the opposition for taking too long to get those bills back through the House. This bill in particular is a classic example of how the alternative would have been so much more effective and efficient, both in using the time of the House and in terms of dealing with the problem.
We have a bill, Bill , which deals with mandatory minimums for gun crimes, for guns that are used in serious violent crimes. In effect that is what the bill is about. Currently before our justice committee we have another bill that deals with crime of a serious violent nature involving guns. It is a bail bill. It is a reverse onus bill. It is one that all the parties support. It is one that would go through very quickly.
It is one that could very easily have been combined with Bill a year ago, so that Bill C-10 would have been about both mandatory minimums and bail review, the reverse onus of bail. That bill would now be before the House. We would be voting on it either this week or next and it would be on its way to the Senate and hopefully shortly after that would be the law of the land.
However, what is going to happen is that the bill is not going to get back to the House before we break for the summer. It is probably not going to get through the process until the latter part of this year and then go on to the Senate and royal assent and the rest of it. Roughly a year later, it is going to come into effect.
We need that bill. We need it in conjunction with this mandatory minimums bill that we are dealing with. It was a logical one to do.
This can be repeated. I do not know how many crime bills we have had from the government. I think there have been 10, 12 or 15 up to this point, since January of last year. Any number of them could have been combined and we could have gone through this.
For members of the House, who already know this, but for the Canadian public as well, the same witnesses repeatedly appear before committee, whether it is the police associations, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, sometimes retired judiciary people, advocates around crime, defence lawyer associations, bar associations or academics in this field. We keep hearing the same people over and over again. They could have come once to give us their evidence on a whole bunch of points. However, the government is insistent, and I accuse it of doing this for straight partisan purposes, to try to highlight that it is tough on crime, that will do this, then it will do that and it will do the other thing.
The reality is it could have been done all at once. If there were one all encompassing bill, we could have done that. With those 10, 12 or 15 bills, we could have done all of that and we could have added in a whole bunch of the private members' bills on crime. I cannot even remember all the numbers of the bills that I am supposed to deal with as the justice critic for my party, and I am sure the justice critics of the other parties are in the same boat. There have been that many, if we combine both the government bills and the ones coming as private members' bills.
There have been well over 20 in the last 15, 16 months. All of them could have been combined in an omnibus bill. A lot more amendments need to be made to the Criminal Code to clear up some of the problems, and to the Evidence Act and other parts of the criminal process.
The justice department, through the work it has been doing over the last number of years, very well qualified, would know what sections we need to encompass in an omnibus piece of criminal law. If we had done that, the government would have been unable to say that it was in favour of mandatory minimums, that it was in favour of this or that. It lost that political flavour, and that is to its eternal shame.
The NDP will support the bill now that it has been amended in line with what members believe is a responsible, focused way to deal with mandatory minimums vis-à-vis crimes that involve guns of a serious violent nature.
I encourage the government, once again, to look at its crime agenda legislation and find ways of bringing the bills together so we can get this done in a much more efficient way and Canadian people overall can be better protected than they are at the present time.
Mr. Speaker, there are really two parts to the question asked by my colleague, the member for .
In terms of the judicial discretion, it limits the judge's discretion, and I recognize that. What it does accomplish is it is part of the message we are trying to send to the country as a whole, to law-abiding citizens who are frustrated at times when they see sentences they believe are too lenient. We know that happens. Judges are not perfect. I am a very strong proponent, as I think most members of the know, of our judiciary.
I think there is no better judiciary in the world than ours. There may be some that are as good, but there are none that are better. However, judges are not divine. They are human and they make mistakes from time to time. We are saying to them that when the crime is of a certain nature, this is the minimum they have to give.
It does not do anything for discretion except to limit it somewhat, but it does make the sentences more consistent across the country. We get some variation across the country, so to some degree it tightens that up in terms of what it does with regard to the lower end and not having any increases at the other end.
The vast majority of these crimes, if we try to add mandatory minimums at the top end, I believe those would be struck down by our courts, under the charter, as being cruel and unusual punishment. With respect to any attempt to add mandatory minimums at the top end beyond the seven years, I think the Supreme Court and other courts of appeal have made it clear that the seven years is the maximum they are prepared to tolerate under the charter with regard to these types of crimes.
At the lower end, I agree. This is a valid criticism of the legislation. We are probably sacrificing a few people who judges might, because of extenuating circumstances, give lower penalties than the mandatory of five years. Of course, the mandatory for these in just about every case where it is now four at the present time will go to five. It will not be a big difference.
There are cases of extenuating circumstances. I always think of a story I was told as I was lobbied by some groups that were opposed to the mandatory minimums. It was about an individual who had suffered a severe head injury as the result of a trauma in a motor vehicle accident. He was married, had children and was living a pretty normal middle class life by Canadian standards. There was a complete change in his personality. His intelligence level was lowered dramatically. He came under the influence of his brother who was a long-time criminal and was involved in a serious robbery involving guns.
If one takes that kind of fact situation, one would think he would get five years. What one hopes for, and what in fact happened in that case, is a negotiated deal where the charges are reduced on the basis of what the crown says. The fall back is that if the issue is to be dealt with, to a great extent it will be our crowns who will have to deal with it.
Mr. Speaker, I want to say at the start, rather like my colleague from , that I believe the majority of members in this House want to work effectively against crime, particularly the most violent kinds of crime. Where we do not agree is on the way to achieve that. As representatives of a democracy, are we going to give the people of this country what they expect or are we going to give them the benefit of what we learn, given our role, from the consultation that we have to carry out, from deeper examination of the references to the science of criminology, which is not an exact science like mathematics, physics or chemistry, but which is certainly a science on the same level as psychology or sociology, in deciding what are the most effective methods? On the government side, they are trying to give the impression to the people that they are doing something to address those crimes that we all want to deal with.
The reason that we object to the bills that are now before us is that they will do absolutely nothing to reduce the number of violent crimes in Canada. While that number is to be deplored, it is still lower than in most other parts of the world. It is also true that it is lower than in those countries that we consider to be civilized countries, without giving too many examples. It is also much lower than the model from which the Conservatives have taken their inspiration, that is to say, our neighbours to the south. We know that our southern neighbours have a homicide rate that is three times higher than in Canada, and four times higher than in Quebec. Yet, that country puts six times as many people in jail as we do in Canada. On a per capita basis, there are six times as many people in prison in the United States as in Canada. However, in sociological terms our two countries are similar. The difference, which I am only too willing to point out, is that we are less accepting of extremes of poverty and the gap between the rich and poor. That definitely has sociological consequences. In that respect, if you ask any educated American, and I have done so many times, why there are so many homicides in the United States compared to Canada, the inevitable answer is the lack of gun control and the wider circulation of firearms.
The solution we know—I believe it has been confirmed— is to first deal with weapons and not to try to correct the situation after the crimes have been committed. That is also what is paradoxical, and there is the same paradox in the United States. People want tougher sentences, but wider access to firearms whereas, if we did the opposite, we would get the opposite result: that is a reduction that would probably be comparable to other civilized countries, when we think of western countries, Australia, New Zealand and many other countries. Including those in central Europe.
We are absolutely convinced—and it is science that tells us, namely criminology— that minimums do nothing. Why do they do nothing? First, because the criminals do not know them. Not only do they not know them, even we, we do not know them. If journalists asked members, after we had voted on this issue, to explain what minimum related to what law they had voted for, I am convinced that less than half the members, and perhaps a great deal less than half, would be able to answer that question.
I am convinced that, in this House, not even 5% of members know how many minimum sentences there are in the Criminal Code. If we do not know that number, how can we think that offenders will know what offences are punishable by a minimum sentence? To start with, they do not know that. Then, when they are about to commit a crime, they do not think about the sentence which they could be given. They are too busy preparing to commit their crime, and most of the time, we do not know about their intention.
Some crimes are essentially impulsive actions, such as crimes inspired by jealousy or, in some cases, by anger, but they are the exception. Nevertheless, do Conservatives think that criminals make a cold-blooded calculation under those circumstances and, if the risk is too great, decide not to commit the offence whereas if the risk is less great, they decide to act? This is not the way criminals think when they commit a crime. This is not even the way ordinary people think. Therefore, this approach is useless.
Science simply confirms how useless it is. The Canadian experience on minimum sentences is quite interesting. Let us take a look at the harshest minimum sentence which ever existed, except for major crimes such as first or second degree murder, where the minimum is not 20 or 25 years, but life imprisonment without eligibility for parole for 25 years in the case of first degree murder and for 10 to 20 years in the case of second degree murder, as recommended by the jury.
In Canada there was a seven-year minimum prison sentence for importing marijuana. When I was in university, I had never heard of marijuana. I was called to the bar in 1966 and I was immediately hired at the Montreal crown prosecutors' office. I worked there for 11 months and then I was hired at the federal crown prosecutors' office where I started handling cases involving hashish and marijuana. That is when I became informed on marijuana and hashish. At the time it was referred to as Indian hemp—the common name for the plant according to Flore laurentienne by Brother Marie-Victorin—but the plant had no hallucinogenic effects. This is no longer the case today. It has been imported and today's crops are much stronger.
At the time, there was no marijuana in Canada. I had never heard of it when I was a student. I completed my education a long time ago: in 1966. That is when the trend began. There were seven-year minimum prison sentences and, contrary to what the Conservatives might say sometimes, that these minimum sentences were never imposed, I am here to say that they were at first. Not only were seven-year minimum sentences or more imposed for importing marijuana, but I saw a case where a two-year prison sentence was imposed for simple possession.
It finally became apparent that marijuana was one of the least dangerous drugs. Nonetheless, all this realization and change came about when the seven-year minimum sentence already existed in law. The effectiveness of such a severe sentence—as a deterrent—can be measured. In Canada we have had the opposite experience and enjoyed some success. Obviously, this will never be absolute and we will never get rid of certain types of crimes. However, we have made remarkable progress when it comes to drinking and driving, so much so that it is no longer the number one cause of accidents in Canada.
Unlike the hon. member for , I remember when there were minimum sentences for repeat impaired driving offences: 15 days for a second offence and 3 months for a third offence.
Nothing has changed in the law when it comes to degree of incarceration, but a lot of progress has been made.
How have we done that? We did it through greater awareness and through education. We also did it when we finally made it easier to prove the offence by introducing breathalyzers and enabling police officers to set up roadblocks. At the beginning, during holidays, the first roadblocks found that approximately 10% of drivers were drunk, while today it is less than 1%. This is objective and compelling proof. We have not increased the severity of the laws and crime has decreased. In the other case, there was a considerable increase in marijuana trafficking, although the sentence is severe.
Bank robberies is the third example. When I started practising, if a person was killed during a bank robbery, it was called constructive murder. This was the case as soon as a person was killed. Some people were found guilty of murdering their accomplice even though they had been killed by a security officer. If that was how the robbery ended, it was the death sentence. My colleagues no doubt know that since the death penalty was abolished in Canada, the homicide rate has steadily decreased, to the point where it is no longer an argument for those who want to reinstate the death penalty. No one is talking about it. It is obvious that the severity of the penalty is not what stops people.
A few years ago, a very good, successful film was made in Quebec called Monica la Mitraille. Monica la Mitraille was a remarkable woman—and I am not being complimentary—who led a group of bank robbers. She was remarkable in the literal sense of the word. At the time, if a person committed murder, they were sentenced to the death penalty. She was not the only one.
I began practising in the late 1960s and practised until 1993, when my political career began. I recall that, early on, in Montreal, there were a great deal of bank robberies, enough to fill the newspapers. There was at least one a day to draw the attention of the Journal de Montréal, as well as the trials and so on. There are hardly any bank robberies any more today. Is that because of more severe penalties? Not at all. Banks are now built better. Prevention has made it more difficult to commit bank robberies and the potential proceeds are limited compared to the risk of getting caught.
Thus, if we want to lower crime rates, we have to think more about the “before” and less about the “after”. But, when we think about the “after” and we still go on the assumption that criminals plan based on sentencing, we think about the worst possible way the crime might be committed and then declare that it warrants a particular sentence. That is how minimum sentences are set. Minimums of five years or seven years are not negligible minimums. That is because we thought about the most serious cases. However, we are forgetting something. The sentences set out for the most serious cases are the same sentences that judges must impose on less serious cases. This is where the injustice lies and what I find most appalling.
I always thought our system of criminal law was exceptional, figuring that it is better to run the risk of releasing a guilty party, rather than convicting an innocent person. Much the same applies to sentencing. Why would we risk imposing the minimum sentences intended for the most serious cases on less serious cases? This type of injustice is just as serious as convicting an innocent person.
There is one more thing that could be convincing. I remember already having this debate here in the House. People have given me examples of circumstances in which the minimum would clearly be appropriate and in which a judge did not impose such a sentence. For one thing, I have heard very few details to explain such exceptional sentences.
Moreover, we are never told about the outcome at the appeal level. Considering the number of rulings made each day under the criminal justice system of a country of 30 million people, it is inevitable that judges, who have a great deal of discretion—and it is important that they have such discretion to be able to properly review each specific case before deciding to deprive an individual of his freedom—impose thousands of sentences. It is also inevitable that, in such a subjective area—this is not an exact science—mistakes are sometimes made. Is the solution to turn this Parliament into a court of appeal? Under our system, there is a way to correct these exceptional sentences, and that is through the appeal process. Some may give me more examples. If I am asked whether I think that a sentence imposed in a specific case—about which I am only informed of a couple of facts—is justified or not, my answer will be the same, namely: was the decision appealed and what did the court of appeal decide? We, as a Parliament, should only get involved if the court of appeal were to make a number of rulings that we would deem unjustified. It is important that sentences be fair and appropriate, and that they be perceived as such. This is a fundamental rule in the fight against crime. When a judge imposes a sentence, he must take into consideration who the offender is, and he must determine why he committed these crimes, whether they are part of a continuing process, whether the offender can be rehabilitated, and what role he played in the crime that took place. Those are the questions that the judge must ask himself. This is not an automatic process, where the judge concludes that he must impose this or that sentence, because he is bound to do so under a minimum penalty provision in the legislation.
I am convinced, and so is the government itself, that the only reason why it wants to impose these minimum penalties is not because this will help reduce the number of such crimes. In fact, I would be curious—and I do not think that the government ever mentioned it—to know what the goal is here. On the basis of what criteria would we be able to determine, five years from now, whether this legislation has been successful or not? Personally, I believe that, regardless of the legislation, things will go in a certain direction because of circumstances that have nothing to do with whether or not minimum penalties are imposed.
What is remarkable is that this government has decided not to get involved beforehand, or to get involved beforehand, but by imposing criteria. I find it strange. It wants to increase penalties, but at the same time it wants to make it easier to have access to firearms. This is the American way, and we know what the results are.
With respect to prevention, it has cut all grants for crime prevention projects while criteria are being defined. For one thing, that is killing a number of these projects, which are not receiving grants in a timely manner. Among other criteria, the government wants to provide grants only for short term projects that show demonstrable results in the short term. I would like the government to apply the same criteria to their bills. This means no more grants for the Société québécoise de criminologie and in-depth studies on crime. That is typical of this government. It pretends. It sees a problem and pretends to act on it. Its reaction is the most basic: if crimes are committed, it is because the punishments are not severe enough. So, it increases the punishments instead of doing as we have so often done in Quebec, through prevention for example, with remarkable success.
Mr. Speaker, I rise after my colleague for . He has demonstrated the expertise developed in his career as a litigator, as Quebec's justice minister, and through various experiences that he has shared with us. We have had a good indication, from inside the justice system, of the extent to which the bill tabled by the Conservatives diverges from the justice system that we want to have.
Personally, I have no experience in this area. My reaction to this bill is more like that of any citizen, a father, a member of society, someone who has not necessarily had much contact with the justice apparatus as such but who tries to assess the common-sense merits of measures such as this one.
It seems to me that the approach adopted by the Conservatives is more harmful and inefficient than others and that it will do nothing to improve the safety of citizens. It is harmful because it strips the judges of some of their responsibilities such as evaluating in a concrete manner the particular situation of each accused, of each individual found guilty, and determining the sentence. Imposing mandatory minimum sentences will have consequences for our justice system. It may well have the opposite effect to that desired by the current government.
This seems to stem from the desire to lower the crime rate. But when it comes to solutions, the other side of the House has adopted an approach developed in the U.S. that has not given the results we would like to achieve here.
Minimum sentences will needlessly tie the hands of judges.Judges are in the best position to determine the most appropriate sentence in light of the facts presented. I am certain that, if this law is enacted, in a few years situations will arise where judges will be very uncomfortable handing out a minimum sentence because it will not correspond to the desired outcome. It may even influence whether or not an individual is found guilty. At that point, the outcome may be the complete opposite of what was desired in the beginning. In addition, many experts are saying that the use of minimum sentences does not lead to a reduction in the crime rate or recidivism rate. This presumption is in part due to the show put on in the media.
This focuses on very specific situations without providing context. A snap decision has been made about penalties that may not seem harsh enough. Yet we have a whole legal system that includes appeal rights and the ability to pass judgment on the situation as a whole. I do not think that the Conservatives' plan will produce the desired results.
Criminologists are the experts. They have worked in the field and can provide expert advice, as was done with the Young Offenders Act. Quebec developed a preventive model that produced very good results. When the American approach blew in on a breeze from the right, the government wanted to go ahead with legislation to amend this situation. Major intervention was needed to ensure that the legislation made as few changes as possible with respect to young offenders in Quebec. Unfortunately, the bill before us could very well have similar consequences. When people read a newspaper article, it is very easy for them to say how awful it is that the sentence is not harsher than it is. It is important to know the details, to understand how things happened. Judges are competent individuals who have honed their expertise and who must consider a wide range of facts before handing down a sentence. In my opinion, automatic minimum sentencing will not help the justice system be truly just, which is the desired outcome. We believe that any measure to automate sentencing is a dangerous approach.
The Bloc does not believe that this is the way forward. We think it would be better to maintain the system that was developed in the past. It gives judges freedom and enables them to reach conclusions that reflect reality. Let us never forget that both sides have the right to appeal. The sense of responsibility will never disappear. People must be aware of that reality. This measure would take some of that responsibility away from judges. They would be forced to make automatic decisions.
If justice were administered by machines, as per the government's wishes, the result would not be desirable, whether it is for crime assessment, the impact on victims and the criminal, and the way of working toward rehabilitation. We will not contribute to rehabilitation with a measure such as the one we have before us.
The Bloc Québécois defends a model of justice based on a personalized process to ensure as much as possible that the least number of people become hardened criminals and the highest number of people are rehabilitated. Thus, they will be able to rebuild their lives, become law-abiding citizens once again and contribute to the development of society.
Way too many examples from the United States show that the approach provided by this bill has the opposite effect of what was intended in the first place. Thus, we end up with criminals with a greater likelihood of further criminal behaviour. I believe that the result is not what we were hoping for in the system in Quebec and in Canada.
If the federal government absolutely wants to make reforms, it must instead look at the nearly automatic nature of parole. Under the current system, many criminals are released after serving one-sixth of their sentence, while any release should be based on merit. We believe that the government would be better to look at this issue and to let judges maintain the right to make their decisions and to take all the circumstances into account. However, we must ensure that parole is not so automatic.
I believe that this approach is the right one. Let us remember the approach taken by the government throughout the consideration of this bill. Indeed, several amendments made in committee were agreed to. However, in the House, the government reversed all these decisions with the support of the NDP and came back to committee with a bill that the majority did not want.
In my opinion, the House of Commons should not support this bill. If it is adopted, in a few years, we could find that its impact has been the opposite of what was initially expected and that crime and especially repeat offences have gone up. People will receive minimum sentences and will experience the penitentiary system. In my opinion, this will have a negative impact. That is why it is important to find a different solution.
This bill is at third reading and will be voted on shortly. I invite the government to reconsider the whole situation, review all the expert advice we received and send this bill back to the committee for further discussion. If we adopt this bill as is, within a few years, we will probably have to review the work that has been done here, because the bill will not have produced the desired results.
I would have liked the House to take into account the expert advice we received and the committee's opinions in order to prevent the adoption of a bill that will not create a justice system that truly renders justice. That is why the Bloc Québécois will vote against this bill.