Statement made on 01 March 2012 by Senator Art Eggleton
Hon. Art Eggleton:
Honourable senators, I first want to draw your attention to a petition that I received at noon hour today. It is signed by 51,950 Canadians, and it was organized through Leadnow. It is in opposition to Bill C-10.
I also want to comment on Senator Carignan's amusing quiz. I am beginning to think that the government has a real inferiority complex. It has to refer to the Liberals all the time to justify its own actions.
One thing that needs to be remembered out of all of this is that the evidence is changing. The evidence that existed in 1892 or 1922 or even just three years ago is different from the evidence that exists today. When a government, whether Conservative or Liberal or any other political stripe, makes a decision, they make that decision based on the best evidence that is available at the time. At least, I hope they do. Some people would think it is more ideological, but I would hope we would make decisions based on the evidence at the time. We are getting more and more evidence all the time that says that bills like Bill C-10 are going in the wrong direction, particularly as it relates to mandatory minimums on minor crimes.
This bill goes against what other jurisdictions are telling us and what we are learning particularly from the United States. It focuses on punishment and not on crime prevention. It focuses on prisons and not on community safety. That, I think, is the wrong direction.
I am not going to go through all the different parts of the bill. It has some good points and it has other flaws. I want to focus on two things. The first is the mandatory minimums, especially for minor marijuana offences, not the big offences that some people have talked about on the other side; and the second is the disproportionate effect this bill will have on some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
I say that if you want appropriate penalties for offenders, then judges are in fact the ones we want to make the decisions. Based on the facts of a case, a judge crafts a sentence that achieves a balance between what the offender deserves and what the community needs, between the criminal and the victim. They are well trained to do this. They interpret the law, and they apply justice in a fair and just manner. I have confidence in them. If a judge believes that the offender is a danger to society and should not be let out, then lock them up. However, it also could mean giving the offender a second chance at life.
Their decisions, of course, can be reviewed. If the prosecution does not like the outcome of a case or does not like the sentence that was handed down to an offender, there is an appeal process by which the case can be reviewed. This ensures that we have an open and transparent system, a system, by the way, that has served this country well for 143 years.
However, this bill would not only limit a judge in devising what is an appropriate sentence, according to the Canadian Bar Association, it would "limit the scope of appellate review where a clearly unfit sentence has been imposed." They go on to say that a one-size-fits-all approach to every offence, regardless of the fact situation or the individual involved, could lead to unjust and disproportionate results. I repeat, can lead to unjust and disproportionate results. Those are startling words coming from a very prestigious organization.
Second, honourable senators, mandatory minimums, in many cases, simply do not work. As lawyers, judges and criminologists have pointed out repeatedly, there is little empirical data that shows mandatory minimums are effective in specific and general deterrence. Perpetrators generally do not consider the penal sanction before committing a crime. Instead, people will commit minor crimes and because of many of the new mandatory minimums, they will be left to languish in prison and to come out a worse criminal, all at the great expense of the taxpayer and without adding anything to public safety. They eventually do get out. If they come out worse, that is worse for the population, is it not?
In 1999, researchers at the University of New Brunswick examined 50 studies on recidivism that covered more than 300,000 offenders. Considering other factors such as an inmate's criminal background and age, they found that the longer someone spent in jail, the more likely they were to commit another crime when they got out. There is the research and the evidence. The researchers found the impact was most significant for low-risk offenders, suggesting prison may indeed be a school of crime that makes people worse, not better.
Also, honourable senators, we recently received advice from our neighbour to the south that has a long history of mandatory minimums. We have heard this before but I will repeat it again, 28 current and former U.S. law enforcement officials signed a letter telling us how wrong this direction is. Why would they do that? They are doing that to be helpful because they have recognized what has happened in their own jurisdiction. They stated:
. . . incarceration and criminal records for non-violent drug offenders have ruined countless lives. Based on the irrefutable evidence, and the repeal of these mandatory sentencing measures in various regions in the United States, we cannot understand why Canada's federal government . . . would [go] down this road.
When they refer to ruined lives, it is not just the lives of some of the people who end up incarcerated, but it is their families and children as well. So many other people are affected by this.
In many U.S. states, honourable senators, mandatory minimums have left them bankrupt, and many states are now repealing their mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offences. That little mention of the fishing trawler that takes so much in with its dragnet, yes, it takes in some big fish, and I know that is what honourable senators across the aisle are saying. It is the big fish they are after, but remember those nets also take in a lot of little fish, too. Once they are charged, they will be put through the process.
Honourable senators, the second major concern I have with this bill is that it will unfairly target the most vulnerable amongst us, specifically those in poverty. While all those who live in poverty are by no means associated with crime, the numbers simply do not lie. More than 70 per cent of those who enter prisons have not completed high school; 70 per cent of offenders entering prisons have unstable job histories. Four of every five arrive in prison with serious substance abuse problems, and if you do not factor in substance abuse, approximately a quarter of all individuals admitted to federal prisons show signs of mental illness.
Aboriginal peoples comprise 2.7 per cent of the adult Canadian population, but approximately 18.5 per cent of the adult offenders now serving federal sentences are of Aboriginal ancestry. The Correctional Investigator notes that 35 per cent of Aboriginal offenders report poverty in their background. In the area I come from, the Greater Toronto Area, neighbourhoods with the highest levels of incarceration are those are with lower incomes, higher unemployment, more single-parent households and lower education. As one provincial judge wrote, and this is an interesting quote:
Poverty is the first fuel that drives crime. It becomes mixed in with the destabilizations of families, widespread substance abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse and domestic violence . . .
One problem begets another problem, as he clearly points out.
Instead of spending billions on mega-prisons to house all those new offenders and perpetuate the problem, we would be better off investing that money into comprehensive childhood development initiatives, affordable housing, youth mentorship programs, at-risk youth initiatives and rehabilitative programs. These programs have been proven to reduce poverty and crime. Steps like these will help reduce the growing income gap in Canada while at the same time giving people the opportunity to have a better life.
With a commitment to programs like these and an understanding that rehabilitation is more important than incarceration, we can create a Canada that is full of people who will be given every opportunity to succeed, will be less likely to commit crimes and more likely to become active contributors to our economy and society.
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