Mr. Speaker, before I begin, I would like to thank Kim Hancox-Spencer for all of her time and help getting this bill to this stage.
It is my honour to rise today and have an opportunity to speak to my Bill C-483 and to highlight our Conservative Government’s strong action to support victims of crime.
Our Conservative Government has worked to re-establish Canada as a country where those who break the law are held accountable for their actions; where sentences match the severity of crimes; where the rights of victims come before the rights of criminals. We believe that victims must be at the heart of the criminal justice system.
Since 2006, we have provided more than $120 million to respond to the needs of the victims of crime. And, the Safe Streets and Communities Act, one of our first Bills after forming a majority Government, was a significant accomplishment– one that further strengthened support for victims.
For example, the Safe Streets and Communities Act provided the Parole Board of Canada and the Correctional Service of Canada with additional authority to give information to victims.
The Safe Streets and Communities Act brought about meaningful changes in the lives of victims by ensuring that the concerns of victims are taken into account in parole hearings.
Victims have consistently called for greater fairness and a greater voice in the criminal justice system. This systematic imbalance between the rights of offenders and the rights of victims was also noted in a report released in 2010 by the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime.
Our Government has listened and we continue to take action to support victims of crime. We have announced our plan to bring forward legislation to create a Victims Bill of Rights – one that will enshrine victims’ rights in federal law, give them a greater role in the criminal justice system, and help ensure they are kept informed.
This commitment was recently reaffirmed in the Speech from the Throne which noted that “…Our Government will introduce a Victims Bill of Rights to restore victims to their rightful place at the heart of our justice system.”
Indeed, these are all important steps, and we are pleased with the progress we have made.
We are taking the necessary steps to reshape the criminal justice system into one that is more responsive to the needs of victims.
That is why I introduced this Bill before us today, which builds on the previous measures introduced by our Government.
Bill C-483 proposes to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act as it relates to escorted temporary absences for offenders convicted of first or second degree murder.
This bill is consistent with our commitment to ensuring that the needs of victims and victims’ families be considered when correctional officials make decisions affecting a prisoner’s release.
An escorted temporary absence allows a prisoner to leave prison for very short periods of time for very specific reasons. As the name implies, the inmate is escorted for the duration of the absence by law enforcement, possibly a sheriff or a correctional officer.
I would like to take a few moments to briefly outline the current structure for Escorted Temporary Absences, as set out in the Criminal Code.
With the exception of specific situations I will mention in just a moment, the Parole Board is the releasing authority on Escorted Temporary Absences for all those serving indeterminate sentences from the start of their sentence up until they reach day parole eligibility.
For those sentenced to a minimum sentence of life imprisonment, eligibility for day parole occurs three years prior to eligibility for full parole.
The exception to this is an Escorted Temporary Absence for medical reasons, judicial proceedings or a coroner’s inquest, which can be authorized by the Correctional Service of Canada any time in the sentence.
Once those serving an indeterminate sentence reach day parole eligibility, the Correctional Service of Canada then becomes the releasing authority for Escorted Temporary Absences and remains so until the time the offender is conditionally released into the community. That is the current scheme. I would now like to take a moment to examine what Bill C-483 proposes to do.
This bill proposes to grant the Parole Board of Canada authority for the full length of the sentence to grant or cancel Escorted Temporary Absences for offenders convicted of first or second degree murder. The exception to this would be that the Correctional Service of Canada would retain the ability to authorize Escorted Temporary Absences for medical emergencies.
This would mean that Wardens of federal prisons would no longer have authority to grant temporary escorted absences to inmates convicted of first- or second-degree murder, except for in a medical emergency.
Instead, the authority would rest with appointed Parole Board of Canada members who are accountable for their decisions.
As I have previously noted, for some victims’ families, the decision-making authority of Wardens to grant escorted temporary absences to murderers has been a matter of great concern. This is for several reasons including: the decision-making process, access to hearings, victim’s right to make a statement and access to decisions. I will briefly touch on each one of these reasons.
When a decision regarding an escorted temporary absence is made by the Correctional Service of Canada, no hearings are conducted as decisions are made on an administrative basis by institutional heads. In contrast, when decisions by the Parole Board of Canada are made, hearings are conducted until the first escorted temporary absence has been approved and further hearings can be held at the Parole Board’s discretion.
Given the administrative nature of decisions made by the Correctional Service of Canada regarding escorted temporary absences, victims and the public are not granted access to the decision-making process. However, when the Parole Board of Canada conducts a hearing, a victim or a member of the public who applies in writing is permitted to attend as an observer at a hearing where their attendance will not disrupt the hearing, present security concerns, adversely affect persons providing information to the Parole Board or adversely affect the appropriate balance between the public interest in knowing and the offender’s application.
Furthermore, under the power of the Correctional Service of Canada, not only is there no right for victims to attend the decision-making process, they also have no right to make a statement when decisions are being made for an offender’s escorted temporary absence. When the Parole Board of Canada conducts a hearing on an escorted temporary absence, the victim may present a statement. The victim may comment on the harm or damage that has resulted from the offence and its continuing impact, including concerns for his or her safety and on the possible release of the offender. Even if the victim does not attend, the Parole Board of Canada has the option to allow the presentation of the statement in an alternative format, therefore still allowing the victim’s voice to be heard.
Finally, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act does not require the Correctional Service of Canada to maintain a registry of its decisions, therefore limiting access to information for the victim and accountability to the public. However, the Parole Board of Canada must maintain a registry of its decisions and decisions rendered by the Parole Board under section 746.1 of the Criminal Code along with the reasons for its decisions. An individual who demonstrates an interest in a case may, on written application to the Parole Board, have access to the contents of the registry relating to that case. This request is balanced out in order to ensure that no information is disclosed of which could reasonably be expected to jeopardize the safety of any person or reveal a source of information obtained in confidence. This allows the victim to access not only the decision on an escorted temporary absence, but also the reasons for its approval or refusal.
As you can see Mr. Speaker, there are flaws in the current system, which results in an unaccountable and inaccessible system and hinders the rights and voices of victims. Through my Private Member’s Bill, I want to ensure that the proper measures of transparency and access are in place for all individuals affected by escorted temporary absences, including the victims. It is also our firm belief that the decisions of the Parole Board of Canada should be respected in letter and spirit as it is an institution that is accountable to all Canadians. I believe this bill is a step in the right direction in this regard.
As I conclude, I would reiterate our Government’s strong commitment to keeping our streets and communities safe and to a fair and efficient justice system that supports the rights of victims. I hope that we can count on the support of the NDP and the Liberals for this common sense measure.
Thank-you Mr. Speaker.