Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, in speaking to Bill C-37 at report stage, I propose to speak to the portions and the importance of providing support for victims in my first three minutes and then return in my second period, of seven minutes, to the problems I have with this bill.
Overall, I think all of us will agree that victim services provided by provinces and territories need to be expanded and improved. The title of this bill, increasing offenders’ accountability for victims’ act, may gild the lily somewhat. This is of course a victim surcharge, which is applied at the time of sentencing. However, I completely concur with the words of Sue O’Sullivan, the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, in her most recent report in February of this year, “Shifting the Conversation”, that we do need to substantially improve services to victims in this country. It was her recommendation that led to much of this bill.
One of the areas where we particularly need to help victims is not one that comes up in this legislation, but it is a move that is supported by the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, and it is one that I want to highlight in my brief opening statement.
I want to highlight it because members on all sides of this House should get behind a measure that we desperately need, and that was encapsulated in something called Lindsey’s law, which has not been brought forward yet. It actually relates to a tragic circumstance that happened to one of my constituents. The daughter of my constituent, Judy Peterson, went missing 20 years ago this year. My constituent has never been able to find out what happened to Lindsey, but it has led her on a crusade to find a way to create a database for the DNA of missing persons that could be cross-referenced to crime scenes. Everybody involved in victim services, whom I can find, thinks this is a worthy effort.
In fact, we can go back into the records of anytime the House of Commons has dealt with it. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, in 2009, looked at this issue of a DNA identification act and supported it. It was also supported in the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. Unfortunately, to this point it has not been brought into law. I should mention as well that even more recently the police chiefs of this country, when they were meeting in Nova Scotia in August of this year, confirmed that they believe we need to create a database for the DNA of missing persons to be cross-referenced to crime scenes. This would be of enormous value to victims, and yet it is missing in this bill.
I will return to the subject of Bill C-37 after question period.
Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, just before question period I was speaking to the reasons why I have grave concerns about Bill C-37. I earlier explained that this legislation is titled the increasing offenders’ accountability for victims act. It is not a separate act at all. The bill would amend the Criminal Code and these amendments deal with the issue of surcharges and fines that would be paid.
These amendments to the Criminal Code would deal with only one thing, and that is the fine, a surcharge put on someone who has been convicted of a criminal offence. The current surcharge is 15% of the amount of any fine that is assessed against someone at the point of sentencing. This act would double that to 30%. That is, in and of itself, not a concern of mine. It is important that we have adequate funds for victim services.
Just to clarify for anyone who is watching, these fines do not actually go to the victims but to provinces and territories, which are supposed to use those funds for victim services. This is different from the category of restitution, where convicted individuals actually provide funds directly to the victim of their crime. This is a general pot of money that is supposed to go to victim services. I note that some of the witnesses before committee had concerns that we did not know how tightly a province or territory tracks those funds and applies them to victim services, but that is not the thrust of most of what I want to talk about today.
On top of doubling the fines from 15% to 30%, these amendments to the Criminal Code would also create an automatic $100 fine in the cases where no particular fine has been levied. Anyone guilty on summary conviction would have $100 levied, and anyone guilty of an offence punishable by indictment would have an additional fine of $200 if no fine had been levied by the judge.
This would get to a very difficult area. I am very supportive of victims of crime, as the Green Party, and I think every member in this House is supportive. We know that even a relatively small criminal event is traumatic in a victim’s life, and the more severe events can be catastrophic in one’s life, so it is not for lack of concern. However, one looks at the question of who is victimized in society and where all the victims are. Not all the victims are outside of our prisons; some of them are inside our prisons. This is the point I raise, based on testimony that was heard before committee on November 1 from Kim Pate, who is the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will read into the record some of what she said. She said, in part:
…the majority of the women—91% of the indigenous women in prison, 82% of women overall—have histories of physical and/or sexual abuse, talking about a victim surcharge to assist victims, when these women end up in custody largely because of the lack of resources in such other parts of the community as social services and health care, particularly mental health….
She goes on to say:
The Parliamentary Budget Officer has estimated that it costs $343,000 per year to keep one woman in federal custody, and provinces range, depending on the range of services and what is costed in, from a minimum of $30,000 of cost up to in excess of $200,000. When we’re talking about those kinds of costs, to jail someone for non-payment of either a fine or a victim surcharge seems counterproductive at best.
The essence of this is to suggest that when we remove judicial discretion, which is the essence of this bill, Bill C-37 would do two things. It would double the percentage that would be paid as a victim surcharge fine, from 15% to 30%; and it would impose an automatic $100 on summary conviction and $200 at indictable offence. The other most important ingredient that this bill would do would be to completely remove judicial discretion to waive these charges if it is, in the opinion of the judge, a situation where undue hardship would be occasioned due to the circumstances of the accused.
Our current Criminal Code includes these words under subsection 737.(5):
When the offender establishes to the satisfaction of the court that undue hardship to the offender or the dependants of the offender would result from payment of the victim surcharge, the court may, on application of the offender, make an order exempting the offender from the [surcharge]…..
This judicial discretion would be completely removed under this act. The only judicial discretion that would be allowed is judicial discretion to increase the fine.
However, we need the ability to look at the accused and wonder if they, in the circumstances of their lives, have been victims of crime themselves. I think of the case of Ashley Smith, for example. All of us who watched what happened to that young woman recognized that she was less the actor in a criminal act and more, through a series of horrific errors, a victim of incarceration and the impact from incarceration that ultimately led to her death. Had someone in her circumstances—and it would have been a much better circumstance—been released from prison and then at the same time been told she still had to pay that fine, where would she find the resources? How would she go on? Would she then end up having a counterproductive result, as the Elizabeth Fry Society says to us?
I want to close with the advice of the Canadian Bar Association. It says:
In our view, the proposed changes to increase victim fine surcharges beyond the reach of a greater number of people will lead to more defaults and more incarceration of the poor, and prevent judges from using their discretion to ensure a just result.
This legislation does not meet its objectives. Those who are victims of crimes should have access to adequate resources, but this is not the way to go about it.
Bruce Hyer: Mr. Speaker, as is often the case, the hon. member for Saanich—Gulf Islands has an unusual ability to integrate details that many of us miss within a much broader context of social and legal implications. I learned a lot from what she just said. It concerns me as well.
I would like her to take this a bit broader and talk not about the impact of victims within prison walls but about their families and what implications there might be for actually increasing the cost to society in a variety of ways.
Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, that has been a concern of a number of the witnesses who testified before the committee. If a fine is levied against individuals for a relatively minor offence and they lack the ability to pay, it essentially could recriminalize them and prevent them from being able to care for their dependents. That was one of the grounds we would now repeal, that a judge could have concern for whether there was undue hardship on the perpetrators of the crime, or on their families.
I remember this well. I was thinking of it earlier when the member for Cape Breton—Canso spoke of the progress that has been made by the Mi’kmaq people of Waycobah. Years ago, I remember reading the story in the paper of the criminal conviction of a young man from Whycocomagh, nearby, for the theft of a pizza from the local store. It was “theft under”. It was punishable by summary conviction. He had jail time, and under this new law he would also be immediately fined $100, for which there would be absolutely no recourse. That is a mistake. It would do damage to families, it would do damage to the individuals involved and it would add nothing to the overall health and wellbeing of our society.