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Corrections and Conditional Release Act

Bill to Amend--Second Reading

May 30, 2024

Hon. Claude Carignan [ + ]

Moved second reading of Bill C-320, An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (disclosure of information to victims).

He said: Honourable colleagues, I rise today to speak at second reading of Bill C-320, An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (disclosure of information to victims).

I would like to thank all MPs for voting unanimously in favour of this bill, which, if enacted, would be of significant benefit to Canadian victims of crime and their families. In particular, I applaud the work of its sponsor in the other place, Conservative MP Colin Carrie, for working to bring people together across party lines to pass this bill in the House of Commons.

The text of this bill is identical to two previous bills that unfortunately died on the Order Paper in 2019 and 2021 because federal elections were called. Those were Bill S-219, sponsored by Senator Boisvenu, and Bill C-466, sponsored by MP Lisa Raitt.

Bill C-320 would be a significant step forward in improving the transparency of the federal parole system for victims of crime and their families. Bill C-320 would ensure that they receive timely and accurate information about parole eligibility and other releases of offenders who committed crimes against these victims and their families.

Bill C-320 is short. It simply makes a targeted amendment to two sections of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, sections 26 and 142. I’ll return to them later in my speech.

What is the purpose of the bill?

Bill C-320 would address the false sense of security experienced by victims and their families. They often receive incorrect information about the offender’s eligibility for release measures and the granting of that release, when they were under the impression that the offender would remain incarcerated for several more years. Flaws in the current legislation are causing this problematic situation, and that is exactly what Bill C-320 would correct if it were to come into force.

The bill seeks to improve the transparency of information provided to victims of serious criminal offences concerning the offender’s release from the penitentiary. As a reminder, a penitentiary sentence is a term of imprisonment of two years or more in a federal institution. It is a heavy sentence and is therefore only given to offenders who have committed the most serious crimes, who have a long criminal record, or who pose a significant risk of reoffending, which could jeopardize public safety and the safety of victims.

For example, anyone convicted of murder in Canada is sentenced under the Criminal Code to life imprisonment, but various legislative provisions mean that they can qualify for and obtain temporary absences or parole well before the end of their sentence. These provisions and how they are applied by prison authorities are unfortunately not explained to victims when the judge hands down the sentence.

That’s why Bill C-320 is designed to help victims and their families understand the reasoning behind certain decisions made by the Correctional Service of Canada and the Parole Board of Canada, which apply the rules that allow offenders to be released before the end of their sentence.

To this end, Bill C-320 proposes that, at the request of victims or their loved ones, they be provided with an explanation of how the offender’s eligibility date for temporary absence, parole or statutory release is determined and the dates on which they will be granted.

Bill C-320 would ensure that these explanations are provided by two correctional authorities, specifically the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada and the chairperson of the Parole Board of Canada.

As I mentioned, Bill C-320 amends only two sections of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. It amends section 26 of the act, which applies to the commissioner, and section 142, which applies to the chairperson, requiring them to provide these explanations to victims and their families within their respective areas of responsibility.

The many speeches made by members of Parliament on Bill C-320 tell us about the distressing experience of victims and their families, and invite us to empathize with them. Indeed, many of them revealed that they were stunned and petrified to learn, often by chance and without prior notice, that the offender has been eligible for or granted a release or temporary absence well before the end of the prison sentence imposed by the judge.

I would like to mention a few of these troubling examples.

First, in his speech before the Commons committee, MP Carrie talked about the unfortunate case of Lisa Freeman. The member explained that this woman’s story is the inspiration for introducing the current bill and its previous versions, Bills S-219 and C-466. Ms. Freeman’s late father, Roland Slingerland, a law‑abiding citizen, father of three daughters, husband and veteran of the Royal Canadian Navy, was savagely hacked to death in 1991 by an axe murderer who was out on parole at the time. In 1992, the murderer was sentenced to life in prison for this crime, with no chance of parole for 25 years.

However, to the dismay of Ms. Freeman and her family, the murderer became eligible for day parole and escorted temporary absences in February 2012, only 20 years into what was supposed to be a life sentence. Ms. Freeman was also surprised to learn that the murderer had also been out on escorted temporary absences. What’s more, when the murderer was transferred to another correctional facility outside Ontario that was only 10 kilometres from the home of Ms. Freeman’s sister, the family was not informed until after the fact. In my opinion, it is obvious that the victim’s family did not get all of the necessary information from the Correctional Service of Canada and the Parole Board of Canada.

As she writes in her 2016 book, She Won’t Be Silenced, Lisa Freeman fought to make her voice heard by Canadian correctional authorities so that, in future, she and her family could get information on the parole process. I commend Ms. Freeman for her concrete, ongoing efforts to shine a light on the lack of transparency in this system. However, she should not have had to bear that burden. That is why I’m asking you to quickly pass Bill C-320 to prevent other victims from going through what Ms. Freeman had to endure in order to be heard.

In light of this, I share the indignation of MP Carrie, who told the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, and I quote:

 . . . a lack of transparency regarding how parole dates and eligibility are determined causes the victims of crime to experience confusion, frustration, trauma and resentment towards our justice system. . . .

A sentence like life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years is meant to imply severity and punishment. This is simply not true. It is misleading to families, and it’s also misleading to the public. Offenders serving a life sentence without parole for 25 years can be released on other forms of parole well before for personal development or temporary absences and community service work. What we are trying to correct with this bill is simply victims’ access to this information as well as an explanation.

Another more recent example than the release of the murderer of Lisa Freeman’s father is that of Paul Bernardo, who was transferred from a maximum-security institution to a medium‑security institution in May 2023.

This notorious murderer had been sentenced in the 1990s to life imprisonment for the kidnapping, torture and murder of 15‑year-old Kristen French and 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy, as well as being convicted of manslaughter in the death of Tammy Homolka. Mr. Bernardo later also confessed to sexually assaulting 14 other women, most of them between 1986 and 1991. However, the victims and their families complained that they had not been informed or given any explanations about the transfer before it took place. In its June 26, 2023, report, a Correctional Service of Canada committee recognized the serious trauma this situation had caused:

The Review Committee recognized that news of the transfer, including the nature of notification, caused emotional distress for victims, as referenced in the open letter by the Counsel for the families of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy.

The Review Committee . . . recognizes that the notification in such close proximity to the event was undoubtedly and reasonably a source of surprise and shock to the victims. . . . The Review Committee recognizes that the victims in this case have experienced unimaginable pain and that they continue to experience profound impacts as they grapple with each decision and event in this case. Additionally, the Committee recognizes that there are many indirect victims who are also impacted in a multitude of ways by case developments.

Paul Bernardo’s transfer aptly illustrates the problem with the current legislation, which results in a lack of transparency on the part of the correctional and parole system toward victims and their families. They’ve been publicly advocating for better information for years, but the system unapologetically disregards their legitimate demands.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. MPs from various parties also condemned what happened in the Paul Bernardo case in their second reading speeches on Bill C-320 to illustrate how important this bill is for victims and their families. For example, here’s what MP Peter Julian said:

. . . It is the victims that are not provided with the appropriate transparency from our justice system and with the appropriate supports. . . .

This bill is one example of how having that transparency around parole is vitally important. . . .

With the Paul Bernardo case, we saw another example of victims not receiving information that was critical. We had a transfer within the system, but the reality is that that information flow, that transparency, that providing of information to victims, was not present. . . .

Here’s another, even more recent example. It concerns Robert Pickton, the worst serial killer in Canada’s history. This criminal was convicted in 2007 on six counts of second-degree murder and charged with another 20 murders. On February 22 of this year, he became eligible to apply for day parole. In other words, he became eligible 17 years into his life sentence.

Once again, the families of the victims have not been notified and have not received any explanations from the authorities. This is what Lorelei Williams, a cousin of one of Mr. Pickton’s victims, reported to The Canadian Press:

[Williams] said no one involved in the justice system informed victims’ families that Pickton’s day parole eligibility date was approaching, and she only found out after talking with a lawyer she knows.

“They never learned how to work with us. They’re just so insensitive,” she said of members within the justice system.

“I’m not shocked that they didn’t tell us because they like to not tell us things.”

Are we going to continue to allow the system to fail to inform the families of murder victims in advance when the offender will be released into their neighbourhood, when that offender has caused them suffering that will last a lifetime by forever depriving them of a loved one?

Bill C-320 addresses that problem. In short, this bill seeks to improve the transparency of the federal corrections and parole system. In order to achieve that objective, Bill C-320 would allow victims and their families to request an explanation from authorities as to how the dates of the offender’s eligibility for or granting of temporary absences, parole or statutory release are determined.

By voting unanimously in favour of Bill C-320, MPs made a powerful gesture to promote important values under the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights, including the right of victims of crime and their families to be treated with dignity and compassion.

I therefore urge the Senate to pass Bill C-320 to continue the admirable, non-partisan work of MPs on this file. The failure to adequately inform victims amounts to adding to their trauma. They and their families are left feeling lost when faced with certain surprises, and they do not understand why the offender is released from prison before serving the full sentence.

Thank you, senators.

Honourable senators, I speak today as the critic of Bill C-320.

I want to begin by emphasizing that having worked with and on behalf of victims — including surviving family members of murder victims — and having a member of our extended family murdered, I recognize the urgent need to provide remedial supports and services for victims and survivors whether or not perpetrators are ever charged or convicted, much less sentenced.

My goal is not to excuse breaches of the law or policy by correctional authorities nor is it to critique the intention and legitimate concerns of those trying to assist people who have been victimized. Rather my goal is to point out that these kinds of after-the-tragedy responses pile on to rather than address or alleviate the inadequacies of the criminal legal and penal systems. These measures increase restriction and punishment for people already subject to lifelong supervision and accountability as a result of the reality that they are serving sentences that do not expire until they die.

Those who are most violent, those who commit the most heinous offences, nobody has any illusions that they will ever re-enter our communities, yet those are the names too often trotted out.

Criminal law and the criminal legal system alone cannot prevent violence and crime. These are after-the-fact responses to violence that have already damaged and sometimes ended the lives of Canadians. As the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls revealed — and as my own more than four decades of work with and on behalf of marginalized, victimized, criminalized and institutionalized youth, men and especially women make painfully clear — the same factors of systemic inequality and exclusion that increase risk of victimization and harm, especially to women and children, also increase risk of poverty, homelessness and criminalization.

Bill C-320 doesn’t address the economic, social, racial and gender inequality which fuels violence and is perpetrated in and by the criminal law and penal systems. Nor does it deconstruct the values and attitudes that reinforce that fabric. Providing supports and services must be prioritized. The issue of violence and sexual violence are very serious, and the criminal legal system generally continues to fail marginalized victims.

The following published statistics provide insight into the reality that police and government recognize that victimization and criminalization are both intricately linked to social, racial, economic and health issues, and the usual responses of the Canadian government in terms of national standards and financial supports are not sufficient.

To illuminate, in 2022, Statistics Canada data revealed that of the 265 homicide victims who were racialized, 225 were Indigenous — more than six times the homicide rate of non‑Indigenous people.

Some might express support for this bill on the basis of beliefs that those who commit violence must suffer or that the criminal legal system can adequately address the needs of victims by piling on punishments and penalties. Some would prefer that prisoners be exempt from human and Charter rights protections, especially those sentenced to life in prison for murder. Such attitudes ignore the reality that approximately half the women in federal prisons are serving sentences for convictions related to using force — sometimes lethal force — in response to violence first perpetrated against them or their loved ones, often their children. Many are ready to label those convicted as violent and these victims and survivors of abuse as dangerous without taking the time to understand the context in which these actions occurred.

This is all the more so for Indigenous women, who represent one in two, or 50%, of the prison population in prisons designated for women. Many have long histories of abuse or past trauma from residential school and child welfare experiences, and struggle to navigate inhospitable environments. These are not people who pose a risk to public safety, despite how they are too often labelled and prejudged. These are people in need of support.

The articulated goals of the proposed amendments to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, or CCRA, in Bill C-320 are to better meet the needs of victims of crime by providing information to victims about how parole and temporary absence eligibility dates are calculated; avoiding misleading parole eligibility dates; improving the transparency of information from Correctional Service Canada concerning the movement of prisoners through and within the prison system, including changes in security levels and conditional release applications; and reinforcing victim access to and participation in hearings conducted by the Parole Board of Canada.

These are all currently part of existing law. The decisions of correctional authorities and officials regarding escorted absences, scheduling of parole hearings and other case management details are supposed to be made based on the progress of prisoners through their case management plan. While the perspectives of victims of crime are vital to a complete understanding of the impact of the actions of accused and convicted individuals, unlike inquisitorial approaches, the criminal legal system in Canada is meant to judge the actions of people against standards of behaviour acceptable in the community and to characterize breaches of those standards as offences against the Crown, not the individual victim.

Supporters of this and previous versions of the bill have claimed that prisons are not harsh enough environments — or even that they are luxurious. Those of you who have gone into prisons to meet with the people working and incarcerated in them — and especially those who conducted visits and investigations that contributed to the 2021 report of the Senate Human Rights Committee entitled Human Rights of Federally‑Sentenced Persons — know that the reality is far from such stereotypic and incorrect descriptions.

Even those who participated in or read the report of the Human Rights Committee might be surprised at what those of us regularly visiting federal penitentiaries are observing — namely, increased use of isolation and more limited oversight of corrections since the implementation of Bill C-83; rising requests in prisons for medical assistance in dying, especially by prisoners with significant mental health issues and those at the beginning of lengthy sentences; the worsening or triggering of disabling mental health issues — those who don’t have mental health issues before they go to prison are likely to develop them inside, and those who enter with mental health issues tend to see them worsen in prisons; limited access to programs and services to address underlying inequalities; and a lack of access to adequate resources, which contributes to people being criminalized in the first place.

I now turn to existing measures in place for victims. Within the federal prison system, victim registration systems already exist as a means for keeping track of a prisoner’s progress through their sentence, as well as their parole and release dates. In addition to the National Office for Victims, there are provincial programs for victim information and support services.

Section 3 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act outlines the following:

The purpose of the federal correctional system is to contribute to the maintenance of a just, peaceful and safe society by

(a) carrying out sentences imposed by courts through the safe and humane custody and supervision of offenders; and

(b) assisting the rehabilitation of offenders and their reintegration into the community as law-abiding citizens through the provision of programs in penitentiaries and in the community.

Protection of society is the paramount purpose of the CCRA as set out in section 3. The measures in this bill do not provide people who have been victimized with the social, economic, health and personal supports that they need and to which they are entitled, nor will such measures successfully deter crime, prevent future victimization or make communities safer.

This is the main reason that efforts to address the needs of victims are usually viewed as inadequate and unsatisfactory. Even a revamp of our entire legal system would be unlikely to remedy this. Rather, we need to address the many systemic failures of our social, economic and health systems if we truly wish to address the issues that contribute to victimization.

Most people I have worked alongside who have lived experience of victimization mention wanting two things: first, they want to know why they were victimized; second, they want to know what would prevent others from being similarly victimized. Offering longer, more punitive sentences or refusing to provide people access to cascading through the system when they earn that right are not generally victims’ requests. However, too often, it is all that is offered to them. Some victims report feeling pushed to stay involved, while most just want to move on.

It is time to work together to ensure that all have access to more tangible supports that can not only address the harm and trauma but also help to prevent it. All of us — ourselves, our children and theirs, for generations to come — would benefit if we had a safer, more inclusive community that would take care of the needs of folks as they evolve and prevent the kinds of harms that this bill purports to address.

Meegwetch. Thank you.

The Hon. the Speaker [ + ]

Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?

Some Hon. Senators: Agreed.

An Hon. Senator: On division.

(Motion agreed to and bill read second time, on division.)

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