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Serious Time for the Most Serious Crime Act
Thursday, June 18, 2009

Debate:   Serious Time for the Most Serious Crime Act

Mr. Bill Siksay (Burnaby—Douglas, NDP):  


Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in the debate on Bill C-36, An Act to amend the Criminal Code, on the right of persons convicted of murder or high treason to be eligible for early parole. The short title of the legislation, creatively crafted by the Conservative government, is the “serious time for the most serious crime act”, which is a bit of a strong misnomer for the legislation.


From outset, the principle of the legislation, which is to eliminate the possibility of revision to parole for people who have committed murder or who are sentenced to life for high treason, is completely wrong. I am strongly opposed to the principle of the legislation. We are not well served by this process of a judicial review, of citizen review in fact, and the faint hope clause should not be part of our criminal justice system.


We have been well served by this. It has encouraged rehabilitation in our prison system. It has allowed for a measure of discretion to review the parole eligibility of people who have been sentenced to a life in prison. It has also encouraged a strong measure of citizen involvement in making the decisions on that very important process.


The legislation takes us absolutely down the wrong road, with no evidence that could support it. I do not think we have any evidence that this will make Canadians safer and that this will improve any of the outcomes we hope for from our criminal justice system or from our corrections system.


The current Section 745.6 of the Criminal Code, dealing with judicial review, enables offenders serving life in prison, with parole ineligibility periods of more than 15 years, to apply for a reduction of that period. The review is not intended as a forum for retrial of the original offence. The focus is instead on the progress of the offender after having served at least 15 years of his or her sentence. That is the description from the Department of Justice of the intent of the legislation.


It is important to review the process that is involved when the faint hope clause is engaged by someone serving a life sentence in prison. The process people have to go through is a very rigorous one that involves several stages.


The first stage is an application to the chief justice of the province in which the person was convicted. The chief justice, or a designated Superior Court judge, reviews the written materials from the crown and the applicant. Then that judge determines, on the basis of the written materials, whether the applicant has shown, on a balance of probabilities, that there is a reasonable prospect that the application will succeed. If the judge decides that, the next step is a jury is impaneled to hear the case. If the judge decides there is no reason to proceed further, the appeal process stops at that point and there is no further follow-up.


The jury, when it is constituted and impaneled, then considers a number of issues when it looks at the application from the person who is imprisoned. It considers, when it is determining whether there should be a reduction of parole ineligibility, the character of the applicant, his or her conduct while serving the sentence, the nature of the offence, information provided by the victim's family members about how the crime has affected them, and any other matters the judge has considered relevant in the circumstances.


A panel of 12 citizens considers those factors and makes the decision about the reduction of the period of ineligibility. The decision of that jury, to reduce the ineligibility period, must be unanimous. We are not talking about a simple majority or anything like that. The jury can reduce the parole ineligibility period immediately or at a later date, or deny any reduction.


When the jury unanimously decides that the number of years to be served should be reduced, it then decides by a two-thirds majority the number of years that must be served before the inmate can apply to the National Parole Board. If the jury decides the period of parole ineligibility is not to be reduced, it can set another time at which the prisoner can again apply for judicial review. If no date is set, then the prisoner can reapply after two years for this process to be engaged again.


It is a very complex process. The process initially involves a judge and then a jury of 12 citizens, two of the important features of our system. There is judicial discretion involved and there is a strong citizen involvement component. The community is absolutely represented in the decision that someone's parole should be reduced. However, that is not the end of the story, because then the parole board has to do its work. The decision about whether the person gets out on parole is made by the parole board in its usual fashion.

    I think it is an outstanding process, frankly. The reality is that such offenders are on parole for life. Even if they are ultimately granted parole through this process, they remain on parole for life.


It might be important at some stage to review the functioning of this faint hope clause and the process of judicial review. I think that is far different from the context of a bill that starts from a point that says this process should not continue, that it should be eliminated and repealed. I cannot support that kind of approach.


It is important to look at the statistics in how this process has unfolded. We have statistics from 1987 to 2009. In that period, 991 prisoners were in the category of having committed murder or high treason and were sentenced to life in prison. That is the group of people who are eligible to apply for consideration in this process.


One hundred and seventy-four decisions were made by the court to engage this process. It is a very small number. It is certainly not a majority. In fact, the vast majority of prisoners do not even apply to engage this process, because they realize there is no reason for it to succeed.


In the 174 cases where the judge decided that the process could continue, only 144 of them were ultimately granted reductions. Even then the jury further reduced the number of people who could be considered. Furthermore, the National Parole Board only granted parole in 131 of those cases. One can see that at every stage of this process it is fully engaged and decisions are carefully made.


Of the 131 folks who did get early parole as a result of this process, 83 are on full parole and 18 are on day parole, meaning that they return to an institution at some point during the day. Three were deported. One was temporarily detained. Twenty-six are currently incarcerated. Twelve are deceased. One is on bail.


It is very important to look at those 26 who are still incarcerated and to point out that only four of those incarcerations, as far as I can determine, are the result of reoffences and further criminal activity. None of them is the result of murder. It is very important to realize that none of these people have reoffended in the same way that they did when they were originally convicted. That shows the great success of this program.


Of the four who reoffended, three were related to drug crimes. One was a very serious drug crime. One of the four who reoffended was related to armed robbery, which again is a very serious issue.


This shows the success of this program. It shows that compassion has a place in this process. It shows that we have to honour the rehabilitation process and say that when it is working, there should be positive consequences for that. People who demonstrate they can change their lives while incarcerated in Canada should have this option.


We also want to make sure that this process is fair to the victims of those crimes. As someone who had a close friend who was murdered, I want to make sure that victims are treated fairly and supported through this kind of process. However, I do not believe that means eliminating the possibility of engaging this process. It has served us very well. It has benefited the community, because people who are in prison are a burden to society. If someone can be a contributing and successful member of society, that is an important factor to consider. It is something we should be engaging every time that is possible.


This process has the necessary checks and balances to make it a very successful program. This is very ill-advised legislation and I will make arguments very strenuously against it.


Mr. Bill Siksay:  


Mr. Speaker, I do not think we have to go farther than our own back yard to find the success of this program.


As I was saying, the program has checks and balances. There is involvement by the judiciary, citizen jurors and the National Parole Board. It ensures people who are released on parole stay on parole and have the supervision, control and support for the rest of their lives. The program has been successful. The fact that none of the folks who have been released on parole under this program have committed the same offence for which they were originally incarcerated shows the incredible success of this program. Incredible checks and balances have been built into it.


Any system of incarceration and punishment has to have a compassionate side. It has to have a side where people who demonstrate that they can rehabilitate themselves have access to other options. The whole system should not be based solely on punishment.


Our experience in Canada demonstrates that clearly. We should be a model for the world. I know other countries have adopted the same kind of model and it is functioning successfully for them as well.



Mr. Bill Siksay (Burnaby—Douglas, NDP):  


Madam Speaker, I wonder if the member for Elmwood—Transcona might comment on whether or not he has seen any evidence that public safety has been endangered by the faint hope clause in the Criminal Code of Canada. Has he seen any evidence that folks who do become eligible for early parole have reoffended and committed murder again, or does he believe, like me, that this is an indication of the success of our rehabilitation process in prison?


The folks who are successful in this process are the people who have done best and are most successful in terms of the goals of rehabilitation. They are no longer a burden on society by being incarcerated, but are integrated back into society and become contributing members of the community again. Does he agree with that statement?