The fate of one of the federal government's toughest crime bills is in doubt after the House of Commons sent the wrong version on to the Senate, which debated that version and sent it on to a committee for further study.
The Commons's mistake affects a key government priority – victim rights – by leaving out four amendments approved for the Fairness For Victims Act. Parliamentary experts say they have never heard of such an error being made before.
The revelation comes at a time when the government is focused relentlessly on crime, and new crime laws may not always receive careful study. Thirty criminal-justice bills are currently before Parliament or were passed in June; of those, 25 are private member's bills, which do not receive Charter scrutiny from officials, or a detailed backgrounder from the Library of Parliament; and research staff in the Justice Department has been cut sharply, while Public Safety staff are given as little as one week to draft new laws.
The Fairness For Victims Act, sponsored by Tory MP David Sweet of Ontario, would extend the waiting period for violent criminals rejected at their first parole hearing. Instead of waiting two years for their next hearing, they would wait up to five years.
The provision could affect 16,000 of the 23,000 people who are in the federal prison system per year, and by reducing the use of early release, usher in a basic change to how Canada releases and supervises jailed criminals into the community. The bill also has provisions that give victims a greater say at parole hearings and give them the right to more information about the offenders.
The mistakes in the Senate's version of the bill are so serious they could thwart Mr. Sweet's objectives, according to Mary Campbell, who was the Public Safety department's director-general of the corrections and criminal justice directorate until her retirement last year.
Ms. Campbell, who tracks legislation partly because she instructs judges' groups on legislative changes, was the first to spot something amiss. For instance, three items related to what victims are allowed to know about the offender are on two contradictory lists: a discretionary one, and a near-mandatory one. And Mr. Sweet wanted victims to be able to receive the information 14 days before the offender's release. But the clause entitling them to the information refers to a section of the law that does not exist.
How the unamended version was passed on to the Senate is unclear. Ned Franks, a professor emeritus at Queen's University, said he assumes "it's just simply a clerical error by the 'table staff' – clerical staff of the House. They're the ones responsible for getting the bills through and getting them right."
How to fix the problem isn't clear, either. Ms. Campbell's attempts to ascertain how the mistake was being addressed suggested a scramble was on in the public service. The clerk of the Senate, Gary O'Brien, declined to comment, or even to confirm an error had been made, and his office referred questions to the House of Commons. The deputy clerk of the Commons did not return phone calls.
Mr. Sweet said in an interview that the mistake was administrative and is being addressed by the Senate.
"There has been an administrative error that I found out about between the House of Commons and the Senate administration. So the legislation that was in the hands of the Senate was not the legislation that passed the House of Commons. Measures are being taken already to correct that, internal to the Senate administration."
Jason Tamming, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, said the error would be corrected: "There was an error made by House of Commons and Senate Administration officials in printing the Bill for consideration by the Senate. Officials are working to rectify the situation to ensure that the legislation, as passed by the House of Commons is appropriately considered in the Upper Chamber."
Victims' rights groups had demanded the changes, and Mona Lee, whose sister was murdered in 1997, made an impassioned plea to a Commons committee to pass the bill. "Families of a homicide do not get parole for their suffering," she said, quoting from a petition from crime victims. The Commons passed the bill after a unanimous vote on June 4.
Liberal MP Wayne Easter, a former solicitor-general, said he supported the bill because it would give the parole board discretion set at between two and five years for a review after a rejection. But Ms. Campbell said that, in practice, the department would have no incentive to conduct a review until five years were up.
Ms. Campbell described the law as "dreadful." Parole is "a safety valve. Parole is not for the offender. Parole is for the rest of us. I don't think it's respecting victims to put the public at greater risk."
She said that, from the 1980s until the mid-1990s, parole reviews were conducted yearly, so prisoners wouldn't languish in the system; the Liberals changed it to every two years to save money.
"You have to bear in mind all the kinds of reasons for denial. It's not necessarily that there's some major risk. It may just be that the best halfway house is suddenly not available or some program is not available or case management has decided for some reason they're not supporting you."