Even before the House of Commons sent the wrong version of the so-called Fairness for Victims Act to the Senate for debate, it was riddled with flaws. No, we’re not referring to the fact that the upper house was sent a text that was somehow missing four key amendments – an error so egregious it threatens to temporarily derail passage of Bill C-479. Rather, we are talking about a bigger mistake: the legislation itself. This private member’s bill, embraced by the Harper government, represents pretty much everything that’s wrong with the government’s tough-on-crime agenda.
Bill C-479 is part of a wider barrage. There are no less than 30 criminal-justice bills recently passed or currently before Parliament. Many are solutions looking for a problem. The Fairness for Victims Act is no exception.
It claims to increase public safety by lengthening the waiting period for violent criminals. If they are rejected at their first parole hearing, they will have to wait five years for another hearing – up from the current two years (itself an increase from the previous standard of one year).
Four years ago, the federal ombudsman for crime victims cited parole hearings as a problem. Then-ombudsman Steve Sullivan pointed out that victims and their families were being forced to endure painful parole hearings for the most dangerous offenders, including those serving life sentences. He reasoned that extending the waiting period from two to five years would minimize the pain of the ordeal. It was an arguable proposition. But the new bill goes much further, extending parole hearing waiting times for anyone convicted of a violent crime – a number that could affect 16,000 of the 23,000 people currently in the federal prison system.
The damage Bill C-479 threatens to wreak on our justice system is enormous. Parole hearings are part of the due process of law. A parole hearing doesn’t necessarily mean the granting of parole – it simply gives a prisoner the opportunity to prove that they have earned the opportunity for a controlled, conditional release before the end of their sentence.
One of the aims of parole is to keep the size of the prison population in check – because we only want to imprison those who need to be in prison. There is also mounting evidence that parole can cut down on an offender’s risk of recidivism and bolster efforts to reintegrate them into the community. Few criminals are serving life sentences. Most will be let out in a few years; they are your future neighbours. The question is whether they will be released wearing the training wheels of parole, or simply be sprung unconditionally at the end of their sentence, with no supervision.
The Fairness for Victims Act doesn’t recognize the cost or dangers of allowing prisoners to languish in the system, or releasing them unprepared back into society. The proposed legislation may die on the vine due to a technicality. If not, it should die on the merits.