Mr. Speaker, before we broke I was talking about the important matter of the faint hope clause that is in the Criminal Code and the desire of the current government to eliminate that provision.
As the vice-chairman of the public safety committee and someone who is the public safety critic for my party, I have had occasion to visit more than 25 federal prisons, not only in Canada but in Norway, Britain and indeed Taiwan. I have visited medium security prisons, maximum security prisons, minimum security prisons, and I have met and talked to dozens and dozens of offenders, many of whom have been convicted of life sentences.
I visited inmates in all institutions. I want to explain why inmates with life sentences exist in all three of those institutions, minimum, medium and maximum security institutions. It is because the designation of offenders and where they serve their sentence is not characterized by their crime but rather by the security risk they present.
I was quite surprised to find that there are many people serving life sentences in this country who are serving their sentences in minimum security institutions, as well as medium security institutions. The reason for that, of course, is that despite the fact that they have committed a terrible crime, a serious and heinous crime, in many cases they have proven themselves to be capable of serving their sentences and improving their behaviour.
One thing I found is that prisons are undeniably very profound places. They are places of justice, social safety and judgment. Prisons in our society are places where society has chosen to send people who have broken the normative laws of our society, and they are sent there for good reason. They are sent there to protect the safety of the public. They are sent there to carry out the sentences they owe to society for breaking the rules.
They are also places of sadness, compassion and mercy. Prisons, when they operate properly in a society, can and should be places of redemption, atonement and rehabilitation. Indeed, I have pointed out in this House on several occasions that the name of our department is Correctional Service of Canada. It is not called “punishment services of Canada”; it is called “corrections”.
The reason for that is that, in a civilized society, we hope that when we send people to prison, one of the goals we hope exists for every prisoner sent is that they can acknowledge the harm they have caused and perhaps correct their behaviour. In most cases, I would say in over 95% of cases, we hope that those people are able to re-enter society and conduct themselves as law-abiding citizens.
I want to talk a little bit about redemption and atonement. This weekend I was at a retreat in Vancouver. A very wise lawyer, someone who practices law in Kentucky and does death row cases, Mr. Don Major, pointed out the Lord's Prayer. He pointed out that part of the Lord's Prayer says that we ask the Lord to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. It leads to this concept that at some point we must be capable of forgiveness and atonement in as many cases as we can.
Many people who are in federal prisons with life sentences will never get out of prison, and properly so; they should not. However that does not mean that every single prisoner who gets a life sentence is incapable of same.
What the faint hope clause does is it gives the opportunity for that person, those rare people who actually can acknowledge their crime, who can correct their behaviour, who are capable of redemption, to have a chance, just a chance at applying for parole.
I spent a large part of my opening speech going through all the details and the administrative structure of how the faint hope clause works. Any person who reads those sections and listened to that speech will see that there is a very careful, measured, guarded, complicated step-by-step process before anybody even gets considered for a faint hope provision.
I want to spend a moment to talk about the victims. I think all parties in this House agree that victims of crime in this country need and deserve to be protected. They need and deserve to be respected. They need and ought to have the chance to be involved.
Victims in this country deserve to be reimbursed for any expenses they have if they participate fully in the process. They deserve to be informed at every step of the process, and they deserve the right to participate in the judicial process.
We on this side of the House in the New Democratic Party champion the rights of victims to be full participants in the judicial process because, after all, they are the ones who are most wronged and harmed by crime in this country.
I am also mindful of the fact that Steve Sullivan, the former federal ombudsman for victims of crime in this country, stressed after working with many victims that victims do not want vengeance and victims do not want punishment or cruelty. What they want is to be heard, to be acknowledged and to be safe. Most of all, when those offenders re-enter society, what victims want is to make sure our country and our system does everything it can to make sure they do not reoffend. That is their prime goal.
That is why a faint hope clause with all of the protections in the present system can be reconciled with the rights and interests of victims. We can achieve all of the aspects that we hope to. We can achieve redemption and we can achieve justice for victims.
I want to talk about guards. It has been said time and time again that the faint hope clause, by giving hope to offenders, acts as a form of behaviour control in prisons, and that helps keep our guards safe. Correctional officers will say that giving a carrot to offenders to behave well gives an incentive for them to follow the norms and rules in prison. If we take away all hope from someone in prison, we are giving that person a licence to misbehave, and that threatens the safety of everyone in prison and outside.
I urge every member of the House to deal with this issue from a compassionate, rational and caring point of view. Let us make sure that the faint hope clause stays in the Criminal Code, so that we make sure that people in our country have a chance at redemption, when it is appropriate to do so, and make sure that the victims' rights and interest are fully respected and taken into account at all times.
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to follow the member for , who has made an excellent presentation on this bill, as well as the NDP critic, the member for , who spoke to the bill earlier today.
As I pulled out my file on what is now Bill , I noticed that it was labelled as Bill from last year. I have only been here not quite two years yet and already I am finding my files are rather heavy and there are multiple numbers for essentially the same bill. Perhaps this will be the last iteration of this bill. Let us hope that the government does not see its way to proroguing the House again or finding another way that would cause us to have to start this all over again.
This particular bill, now Bill , is an act to amend the Criminal Code and another act. It was given first reading in the Senate on April 20 of this year. The bill would amend the provisions of the Criminal Code regarding the right of persons convicted of murder or high treason to apply for early parole. This is done through the elimination of the faint hope clause by which those given a life sentence for murder or high treason could apply for parole after having served 15 years of their sentence.
A similar predecessor bill, Bill , as I mentioned before, was introduced during the second session of the 40th Parliament but did not become law because of the abrupt ending of the session on December 30 when the prorogued the House.
In terms of the history of section 745.6 of the Criminal Code, it is known informally as the “faint hope clause” because it provides offenders serving a sentence for high treason or murder with the possibility of parole after having served 15 years. We will see later that there are a number of comparable countries to Canada with similar systems that have a much lower number of years for murderers to serve.
In our case, it is 15 years, where the sentence is imprisonment for life without the eligibility of parole for more than 15 years. Offenders convicted of first degree murder receive life imprisonment as a minimum sentence with the earliest eligibility for parole set by law at 25 years. For offenders convicted of second degree murder, a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment is also imposed, with the judge setting parole eligibility at a point between 10 and 25 years. Those serving a life sentence can be released from prison only if granted parole by the National Parole Board.
Unlike most inmates who are serving a sentence of a fixed length, for example, 2 years, 10 years or 20 years, lifers are not entitled to statutory release. If granted parole, they remain subject for the rest of their lives to the conditions of the parole and supervision of a Correctional Service of Canada parole officer. Parole may be revoked and offenders returned to prison at any time if they violate the conditions of parole or commit a new offence.
Not all lifers are in fact granted parole. Some are never released on parole because the risk of their reoffending is too great. In fact, I will look later at the numbers of people involved in this situation and we will find that a very small number of people in prison, at the end of the day, would get parole.
During the years following its initial introduction in 1976, the faint hope provision underwent a number of various amendments. Now the criteria for the possible release on parole of someone serving a life sentence are as follows.
The inmate must have served at least 15 years of the sentence. As a matter of fact, the member for pointed out this morning that it is usually around 17 years before applicants normally apply and that in fact very few people actually do apply even at that point.
An inmate who has been convicted of more than one murder, where at least one of the murders was committed after January 9, 1997 when certain amendments came into force, may not apply for a review of his or her parole ineligibility period.
To seek a reduction in the number of years of imprisonment without eligibility for parole, the offender must apply to the chief justice of the province or territory in which his or her conviction took place.
The chief justice, or a Superior Court judge designated by the chief justice, must first determine whether the applicant has shown that there is a reasonable prospect that the application for review will succeed. The assessment is based on the following criteria.
One is the character of the applicant. We have already mentioned that we have excluded multiple murderers from the applying in this case, so the judge has to look at the character of the applicant. If the character is bad, that person would not qualify.
Another criterion is the applicant's conduct while serving the sentence. I am assuming that if the applicant has been involved in something like a prison riot or some other altercation with other inmates within the prison or just has not co-operated, that too would disqualify him or her from applying.
Next is the nature of the offence for which the applicant was convicted. That too, would vary with the individual.
Another one is any information provided by victims at the time of the imposition of the sentence or at the time of the hearing under this section. So once again we are looking at victim impact statements. The judge then has a better opportunity to look at the total picture of each and every situation.
Finally, any other matters that the judge considers relevant in the circumstances can be considered.
If the application is dismissed for lack of a reasonable prospect of success, the chief justice or judge may set a time for another application not earlier than two years after dismissal, or he or she may declare that the inmate will not be entitled to make another application.
The point here is that it is not a simple process. It is a long, involved process and there has to be an exemplary situation on the part of the inmate for him or her to get through all stages of the process and achieve release.
If the chief justice or judge determines that the application has a reasonable prospect of success, a judge will be assigned to hear the matter with a jury. In determining whether the period of parole ineligibility should be reduced, the jury should consider the five criteria that I have outlined. The jury determination to reduce the parole ineligibility period must be unanimous.
Evidently, before, that was not the requirement. I believe it was two-thirds, but now it has to be unanimous on the part of the jury.
The victims of the offender's crime may provide information either orally or in writing, or in any other manner that the judge considers appropriate. This is also an excellent provision of the rules.
If the application is dismissed, the jury may, by a two-thirds majority, either set a time not earlier than two years after the determination when the inmate may make another application, or it may decide that the inmate will not be entitled to make any further applications.
We see within the bill that there are some changes to these provisions later.
If the jury determines that the number of years of imprisonment without eligibility for parole ought to be reduced, a two-thirds majority of that jury may substitute a lesser number of years of imprisonment without eligibility for parole than the number then applicable. The number of years without eligibility for parole that they can assign can range from 15 to 24 years.
Once permission to apply for early parole has been granted, the inmate must apply to the National Parole Board to obtain the parole. Whether the inmate is released, and when, is decided solely by the board, based on a risk assessment, with the protection of the public as the foremost consideration.
We can see from each of these steps that if there is a red flag popping up at any of these stages, that should end the process. The process should not continue beyond that.
Board members must also be satisfied that the offender will follow specific conditions, which may include restriction of movement, participation in treatment programs, and prohibitions on associating with certain people, such as victims, children, and convicted criminals.
One of the points we have continually made is that progress can only be made if the people in the prisons are actually being rehabilitated. The fact that they are participating in rehabilitation programs is something that we as a society want. We do not want people sitting in the prisons for years and years and refusing to take part in programs. By taking part in programs, the inmate enhances the possibility that at some time, away in the future, there could be some faint hope down the line.
It has been mentioned several times today that Colin Thatcher, a former Conservative member of the legislature in Saskatchewan, had been in jail since 1984. In fact, he wrote a book while he was in prison. He served 22 years or more for the murder of JoAnn Wilson. At the end of the day, I believe the faint hope clause did apply to him only two or three years from the time that his 25 year term would have expired.
If you can rehabilitate a former Tory cabinet minister, you can rehabilitate anyone.
Mr. Jim Maloway: As the member for has said, if we can rehabilitate a former Conservative cabinet minister, we can rehabilitate anybody. I think this would apply to anybody from any party, because that was a very sad case.
I followed it very closely at the time. I used to go out to Saskatchewan quite a bit during those periods. It was very sad for the family, the children and everybody. It is just that this case brought excessive amounts of publicity by virtue of who Colin Thatcher was. If it had been another person who did not have his fame, we probably would not even remember the case today.
The faint hope clause review then is not a forum for a retrial of the original offence, nor is a parole hearing. A favourable decision by the judge and the jury simply advances the date on which the offender will be eligible to apply for parole. As stated:
The Supreme Court of Canada has stated that the purpose of this review procedure is to re-examine a judicial decision in light of changes which have occurred in the applicant’s situation since the time of sentencing that might justify lessening the parole ineligibility period. Section 745.6 of the Criminal Code gives the jury broad discretionary power to consider any matter concerning the offender’s situation, and the Supreme Court has provided guidelines for the exercise of this discretionary power, namely that the jury must consider only the applicant’s case and must not try the cases of other inmates who may have committed offences after being released on parole. The Court has also stated that it is not the jury’s role to determine whether the existing system of parole is effective.
The point is to counter the misinformation spread by agents of the Conservative Party and the media, which like to give the impression that prisoners are basically in a revolving door, that they are standing in line at the prison, ready to get out and move next door to law-abiding citizens or across the street. Anyone listening to these steps can see it is very rare that someone will be able to follow through on all of these steps and walk out of prison under this program.
The argument of many here, including the member for , is that maybe only 1% of 2% will get out, but as long as 100% have hope that someday they might get out, they probably will behave a lot better. They will try to rehabilitate themselves and stay out of trouble. We have it on record that the prison guards actually support that. The prison guards of Canada feel the last thing we need are people in prison without hope, who will resort to doing things they should not do, which might endanger the guards, other prisoners and people who should not be endangered, if this system is not in place.
The faint hope clause was put in for very good reasons, dating back to the days of Pierre Trudeau, and I will get into the history of it now.
A lot of us here today were around in those days. This is not an environment for a lot of young people. We do not see young people being elected to the House. The odd person does, but most start in the city council areas, the school boards and the provincial legislatures and work their way up. By the time we get into the federal House of Commons, we have earned that grey hair.
In July 1976 Parliament voted to abolish capital punishment, and I remember how controversial that was at the time, for Criminal Code offences as opposed to the death penalty for military offences, which was abolished in 1999. The Criminal Code was amended and the categories of murder were changed from capital and non-capital to first and second degree murder.
Mandatory minimum sentences for murderers were introduced. The compromise arrived at between the supporters and the opponents of the death penalty was its replacement with long-term imprisonment without parole. The faint hope clause was adopted in 1976 in connection with the abolition of the death penalty.
Speaking in favour of the abolition of the death penalty and the addition of the faint hope clause in the Criminal Code was the solicitor general of the day Warren Allmand. I could read his quote, but it was well said and made sense, certainly for that period of time. The faint hope clause 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.
The provision is also said to represent Parliament's awareness of how long persons convicted of murder who were imprisoned in other countries served before allowing them to apply for parole. These countries are our peers. I think most people understand that we are not talking about Third World countries, with systems that are radically different from ours. In fact, we are talking about Australia, part of the Commonwealth, Belgium, Denmark, England, New Zealand, Scotland and Switzerland. Key persons convicted of murder are imprisoned an average of 15 years before they may be paroled.
That is why we have heard many speakers today talk about the chart, which shows these countries, on average, keeping people in prison for 15 years, where in Canada it is 25 years. Canada is higher than all those other countries. In fact, the member for pointed out today that people stayed longer than 25 years in prison. It is more like 28.5 years.
The first judicial review hearing under the faint hope clause was held in 1987. People want to know how many people are involved in this. As of April 12, 2009, 991 offenders have been deemed eligible to apply for a judicial review. Court decisions have been rendered in 173 cases and 143 inmates have been declared eligible to apply for earlier parole. Of these, 130 were granted parole, representing just over 13% of those who had been deemed eligible to apply for a review of their parole date.
The most recently published Correctional Service Canada statistics concerning the fate of prisoners released on parole under the faint hope clause, as of April 12, 2009, show that of the 130 offenders who had been released by that date, 101 were being actively supervised in the community. They are not running around on their own. Fourteen of them had been returned to custody because they had not behaved themselves. Eleven were deceased, one was on bail and three had been deported.
These statistics also showed that out of a total 22,000 offenders under Correctional Service Canada jurisdiction at the time, 4,495, or 19%, were serving life sentences, almost all of them for murder.
By comparison, in July 2009, 140,000 people, or 9% of the total prison population, were serving life sentences in the United States.
My time has run out, although I find it hard to believe that was a full 20 minutes. I am sure the clocks are off by just a bit.