Alistair Speaks on Mental Health in the Justice System

 

Alistair MacGregor (Cowichan—Malahat—Langford)

Madam Speaker, I had my opening remarks prepared, but after listening to the previous speech, it is important to clarify a few things.

What the member for Richmond Hill is attempting to do is amend a very specific section of the Criminal Code. That is well within the rights of the federal level of government. It is very separate from victims services. As we all know, victims services fall under the provincial jurisdiction. The administration of justice in Canada falls to the provincial governments. We have a very limited jurisdiction in amending criminal law, so it is important to state that clear fact.

Furthermore, when people get to the pre-sentence stage, they are no longer suspects, they are now offenders; they have been found guilty. Given the huge amount of evidence that exists regarding mental health issues in Canada's prisons and given the previous member's own stated support for mental health supports, I do not see why we should not tackle this issue. This is not putting the rights of offenders over the rights of victims. Those are completely separate issues. A judge is the expert of the case and has heard all of the facts. This is about giving that person, who is in a decision-making stage, even more facts to make the correct and appropriate decision.

I was at the justice committee. I heard the testimony from numerous witnesses who work in the criminal justice system. They support this piece of legislation going through. It is important to hold up facts, to back up our deliberations with those facts, and not to go down some rabbit hole talking about support for offenders over the rights of victims.

On a personal note, I have a friend who recently was subjected to a crime and she accessed victims services in the province of British Columbia. I can say, with pride, that she found those services to work very well. She found the judge in her case and all of the support staff were there every single step of the way. Therefore, for the Conservatives to suggest that victims do not have rights in this country is factually incorrect, given the experiences of my personal friend. She found herself supported every step of the way by the justice system in British Columbia. I just wanted to read that into the record.

I want to thank the member for Richmond Hill because the other key difference here is that this is not a government bill. This is from a Liberal backbencher who has taken the right that we all have in this place to take an issue that is important to a member's local community, which his or her constituents or Canadians within the wider region have identified as an issue, and to bring it forward. The member has identified this as an important piece, so we need to respect that. This is not a government bill masquerading as a private member's piece of legislation.

The very specific section of the Criminal Code that Bill C-375 addresses is section 721. There are some differences in the wording of this legislation, from second reading to the stage it is in now. That is because the justice committee did its due diligence and it listened to the testimony. I agree with the member for Richmond Hill that the language was tightened up to take account of some of that testimony. We had three meetings at the justice committee on this particular bill. I was present for two of them, where I got to listen to most of the witness testimony.

I thank the hon. member for Victoria, who serves as our party's justice critic and has done an admirable job at that committee for us. We attempted to move an amendment at the committee stage. It was not agreed to, but through all of the deliberations that went on, the bill that is now before the House has taken into account a lot of the improvements that were mentioned.

Pre-sentence reports already do exist. In section 721 of the Criminal Code, in paragraph 721(3)(a), pre-sentence reports already require that, “[an] offender’s age, maturity, character, behaviour, attitude and willingness to make amends” be included in a pre-sentence report.

Therefore, it is key that we now include a new section 8.1, which reads, “any aspect of the offender’s mental condition that is relevant for sentencing purposes, as well as any mental health services or support available to the offender”. We do not want to house with the general population someone who has an obvious mental health issue. That would not serve the general population well, and it certainly would not serve that particular person well.

A lot of attention has been paid to mental health lately. At the justice committee last year we were engaged in a groundbreaking study on mental health support for jurors, because jurors are often dragooned into service from of their normal family lives. I was there when we were listening to jurors who partook in the Paul Bernardo trial. They had to watch all of the videos and hear all of the audio tapes. After the trial was done and they had delivered their verdict, they were simply given a handshake, a pat on the back, released back to their family lives and expected to go on normally. Therefore, I really hope that the Department of Justice listens to the recommendations in that report.

We are also making landmark strides in mental health with respect to first responders, our veterans, Canadians Forces personnel, and now in the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food we are tackling the issue with respect to farmers. I think the conversation is headed in the right direction, and I am glad to see that this particular private member's bill is continuing along in that vein.

We had testimony at committee from the Probation Officers Association of Ontario. These are people who are working every single day in the correctional system. We had the director from the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies there, as well as the executive director of the John Howard Society. We also had some testimony from the defence counsel of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers. These are people who are intimately involved with the justice system, understand it very well and understand where the shortcomings are.

However, Dean Embry from the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers did have reservations about the bill. In his testimony, he was quite concerned about some of its privacy implications. His concerns were taken into account and that is why we see the language tightened up.

Providing information about an individual's mental health in a pre-sentence report allows the judge to make a more informed decision about an appropriate sentence. However, this measure is not intended to result in the disclosure of one's mental condition. Also, I think it is very important to note that it is not about perpetuating stigma or the false perception that those with mental health disorders are dangerous. It is simply designed to assist the individual to obtain care and receive an appropriate sentence.

It is also important, because privacy concerns were raised, that the the pre-sentence reports are distributed only to members with a vested interest in the case. They include the judge, counsel for the defence and the prosecution, the parole officer, the individual and, in some cases, the institution where the sentence will be served.

We know that people with mental illness are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and there are statistics on that. There was a report in 2012 showing that 36% of federal offenders were identified at admission as requiring psychiatric or psychological follow-up. Additionally, 45% of male inmates and 69% of female inmates received institutional mental health care services.

To conclude, we should be giving a judge as much information as possible to make an appropriate sentence for someone who has already been found guilty. Giving a pre-sentencing report, I think, is in everyone's interest. We should be giving a judge the widest amount of discretion possible to take in all of the facts of the case to make an appropriate sentence.

I thank the member for Richmond Hill for bringing this proposed legislation forward. I congratulate him for the bill's making it to this stage, and I look forward to offering my support when the House votes on the matter.