moved that Bill C-526, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (sentencing), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I thank all my colleagues who appreciate this government's stance on taking care of business as far as criminals go. I have seen more criminal laws come into place over the last 10 years, I think, than the previous 20 years. It shows the importance to this government of ensuring that we crack down on crime and protect Canadians.
I am very pleased to stand today in support of the bill. It comes about as a result of my own practice in law. I spent most of the 1990s practising criminal law and other forms of litigation in northern Alberta. During that time, I saw some very horrendous crimes that I felt did not have proper punishment, as a result of the inability of judges to, in essence, throw the book at people who are involved in more serious crimes. When I say that, I talk about crimes that I find particularly repugnant; those crimes that include more than two people, for instance, three or more people. Those people usually start with low-level crimes, where they are organized and they talk about it. Then they move on to higher-level crimes, if indeed they get away with them or the judicial system has no ability to crack down on them.
In particular, Bill C-526 would strengthen the Criminal Code's response to organized crime and terrorism. I know that terrorism does not happen very often in this country, thank goodness. However, we do have a situation where criminal organizations are very active in this country. Make no mistake, criminal organizations account for a very large amount of crime, more particularly the very serious nature of the crimes themselves, such as murders, arsons or things like that. Most serious crimes that include violence are more likely gang related and related to organized crime. This government has been committed to taking steps to ensure these crimes are treated as among the most serious in the Criminal Code.
I intend, today, through this bill, to allow judges more discretion at the final disposition of sentence and also to enable crown prosecutors to do what they do a lot of, which is plea bargaining, to get a situation that they may not receive a conviction on but that allows the judge to, in essence, throw the book at them at the time of sentencing.
This proposal is to amend the Criminal Code sentencing provision that sets out factors which should be considered to be aggravating or mitigating, in essence, aggravating factors. If they are involved in the crime themselves and the facts have been proven, the person would be found to be more liable and could receive a larger sentence. This means, as well, that the judge would increase or decrease sentence as a result of those factors that arose during the commission of the offence.
It proposes to amend the list of aggravating factors in two ways.
First, it would create a new aggravating factor for sentencing where there is evidence that an offence was connected in any way to a group of three or more persons who had a common purpose of facilitating or committing an offence under the Criminal Code or any act of Parliament.
Second, the bill proposes to create a new category of serious aggravating factors, which would include evidence that the offence was committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a criminal organization, or there was evidence that the offence was a terrorism offence, which is very serious indeed.
This last amendment aims to send a very important message of public policy from our government and from all future governments; that is, that organized crime and terrorism offences are among the most serious offences in the Criminal Code and that the courts should not tolerate them. They should consider them to be even more serious aggravating factors, as specified in the Criminal Code.
These factors play an important role in the judicial process of determining an appropriate sentence for a convicted offender.
The Criminal Code actually enumerates some specific factors that Parliament considers to be aggravating or mitigating. This list is not exhaustive, but it would certainly give judges and the judiciary a specific direction as to how public policy should be placed on these people and how they should treat them when convicted. Factors in this provision must be taken into consideration by a judge. They are actually asked to consider them under this legislation.
However, a judge can also consider other aggravating or mitigating factors that arise in those particular cases. It would give judges the discretion, and it would clearly enumerate that this government, and, I, in particular, have faith in the judiciary. If given the proper tools, they will throw the book at these criminals who participate in such despicable behaviour.
There are strong public policy reasons to treat offences that are committed by three or more people with greater severity than offences committed by one individual. I do not think I need to go into detail on that. Most Canadians would agree that three or more people who are involved in an offence, who would commit some criminal behaviour, should be treated differently than those who are singularly involved. It shows more complexity and more of a desire to be involved in this type of element.
The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics released a report in November of this year, entitled “Co-offending in Canada, 2011”, which examined co-offending trends in Canada. It defined co-offending as being crimes involving two or more accused people, and group crimes as being crimes involving three or more accused people.
Group crimes are what I am interested in with the first amendment. Group crimes only account for 3% of criminal incidents in Canada. Most people would say that is not a lot, but the truth is that for a number of reasons we should give more attention to these crimes. They are more serious in nature. As I mentioned before, when three or more people are involved in an offence, the offence usually involves more serious repercussions to individuals and victims. For instance, first, the offences are more likely to involve a firearm or another weapon. Second, when a violent crime is committed by a group, the chance that the victim will be injured or killed is much higher. Third, hate crimes, which are so despicable in this country, tend to involve groups or other individuals more than non-hate crimes. These statistics, although small in number, show that the repercussions and the impact on victims are much more serious than if they are incidents committed by a single offender.
These recent statistics also reveal that co-offending and group crimes are a trend that is more likely to be among young people, or youthful offenders. That is also a difficulty because these crimes, for youth, set the trend for them for future years. Judges need to be able to stop them at that age. The crimes that youth are involved in include breaking and entering, arson, robbery, possession of stolen property and theft. Indeed, there is no victimless crime in these types of incidents. There is also a connection between group crimes and co-offending and the eventual formation of more structured criminal enterprises for youth and others.
I have been told startling statistics, such as that it is 8% of crimes that are ever solved. If youth commit crimes with three or more people, they get away with them and are enriched by that behaviour, those people are more likely to continue to commit crimes. We need to give the tools to the judiciary to be able to stop them in their tracks so they change their ways.
There is also a connection in other ways to more serious crimes, and that would be involvement with organized crime. That is why I believe there has been a gap in the Criminal Code legislation for crimes committed by groups of three or more people and being able to punish them adequately to reflect the crime the offenders have been involved in. Although judges can already recognize the seriousness of the commission of a crime by a group at sentencing, Bill C-526 would specify that in every situation where three or more offenders are involved in an offence, this factor shall be taken into consideration. It would give less leeway in a way, but it instructs, on a public policy basis, that judges should take this more seriously and actually throw the book at these people.
Some may question how the aggravating factor differs from the existing aggravating factor for criminal organization offences. In order for a criminal group to fall within the definition of a criminal organization, the commission of the offence must also be motivated by a material benefit for the group. I am not going to go into it in great detail, but let us just say that the changes to the criminal organization offences have not been very effective.
I have worked in the trenches and I have seen what has taken place in criminal courts. I know how plea bargaining and crown prosecutors work, and I know how defence counsels work. Bluntly speaking, it is very difficult to prove that a person is a member of a criminal organization, that the criminal organization was involved, and that indeed the criminal organization is a criminal organization. I have been told, and we have heard it from a particular report, that it takes up to a week or two weeks to prove these particular offence traits and facts. Then they have to do that with every co-accused person, and every new person who belongs to a particular gang or criminal organization, for instance. It is very difficult to prove.
Although the facts are there, and it shows the factors in the Criminal Code relating to criminal organizations and how crown prosecutors can prove it, et cetera, the truth is that very few people were convicted under this provision over the last period of years that it has been in force.
The proposed new aggravating factor in Bill C-526 does not require an element of material benefit. The new aggravating factor would simply include situations where there is evidence that the offence was connected in any way to a group of three or more persons with the common purpose of facilitating or committing an offence under the Criminal Code or any act of Parliament.
While the existing aggravating factor of organized crime may overlap somewhat, and it is agreed it may somewhat overlap, the proposed new aggravating factor, the new factor that I have proposed, is less stringent and captures a broader range of offences. They are more simple to prove, as I mentioned. For example, this new aggravating factor could also apply to a number of different scenarios, such as breaking into a home or business to commit a theft; a sexual assault; offences, as I mentioned, that are motivated by hate, and drug trafficking and auto theft, to name just a few. That is provided, of course, that the offence is committed by a group of three or more persons.
The new aggravating factor would strengthen the Criminal Code because it would capture group crimes that do not meet the definition of organized crime. As I said, it is very difficult to prove. Group crimes may still be very serious, even absent the motive of material benefit. In fact, most Canadians would not understand why they have to prove material benefit under an organized crime scenario, such as in a sexual assault or hate crime. However, from my perspective, it is quite shocking that it is not included in the Criminal Code as such, and I believe there has been a gap that we can fill with this legislation.
While I have spoken at length about the benefits of the new proposed aggravating factor to address group crimes, I must also take a moment to discuss the second proposal. The objective of this new category is to send a message to the courts that these crimes are extremely serious and to give judges further discretion in relation to these types of crimes. I think most Canadians would agree that people who are involved in organized crimes or terrorism offences should have the book thrown at them. We do not want them in Canada. We do not want to encourage those people to be involved in these offences in Canada. We do not want them to do this at all.
When we find these people, we should be able to easily prove that they are those people. For instance, I think members would be surprised to find out that because it is so difficult to prove these offences and the facts of these cases, crown prosecutors have to plea bargain because they do not want these people to get off completely. Plea bargaining in essence means that prosecutors do not get everything they want. They are not going to be able to go to trial and find people guilty of every offence.
Crown prosecutors are going to ask how easy or difficult it will be to prove these three offences. If it is difficult to prove these three offences in criminal organizations, with the group crimes that I have proposed there is a gap that will not allow them to suggest it is going to take two weeks to go to trial, that it will take time and it will be very difficult prove someone is part of a criminal organization. What would happen now is that the crown prosecutor can say he or she does not need to worry about that criminal organization and to prove that fact. The prosecutor would only need to prove to the judge or justice that there were three or more people involved in the crime. Then the judge can give a more serious penalty, and in fact the judge has to take that into consideration.
I am open to possible amendments from the government or the opposition. I encourage all members to participate in the study of this particular bill. It is a great bill, and I cannot imagine anybody standing against it. However, of course there is always the chance that somebody might feel he or she could do a better job with some particular part of the bill. I am open to that.
I would urge the members of the House, in all parties, to support this bill at second reading so it can be referred to committee for further study. As we know, the ultimate goal of stiffer sentences being imposed on offenders who form a common intent to commit crimes is worthy of support. In many situations, the amendment would apply to gangs that may not meet the criteria to be considered for a criminal organization.
In closing, I consider this to be a very responsible approach to current crime trends and an important message to group crime and organized crime offenders. We will stand up for Canadians on this side of the House, and I believe in this particular case that all members of the House will do the same.