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Remarks: House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security

Ombudsman Sue O’Sullivan, Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime
February 13, 2014 4:30-5:30 PM
Room 237-C, Centre Block

INTRODUCTION

  • Good evening Mr. President and members of the Committee.
  • Thank you for inviting me here today to discuss Bill C-479, An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.

MANDATE

  • I would like to begin by providing you with a brief overview of our Office’s mandate.
  • The Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime was created in 2007 to provide a voice for victims at the federal level.
  • We do this by:
    • receiving and reviewing complaints from victims;
    • promoting and facilitating access to federal programs and services for victims of crime by providing information and referrals;
    • promoting the Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime;
    • raising awareness among  criminal justice personnel and policy makers about the needs and concerns of victims, and
    • identifying systemic and emerging issues that negatively impact on victims of crime.
  • The Office helps victims in two main ways: individually, and collectively.
    • We help victims individually by speaking with victims everyday, answering their questions and addressing their complaints.
    • We help victims collectively by reviewing important issues and making recommendations to the Federal Government on how to improve its laws, policies or programs, to better support victims of crime.

INTRO

  • I would like to begin today by thanking Mr. Sweet for his work on this bill and for his efforts to recognize the valuable role that victims of crime have to play in the Canadian criminal justice system.
  • As mentioned, my mandate is to assist victims of crime in Canada. During my previous and current term as Ombudsman, I have had the privilege of hearing from hundreds of victims across this country.
  • I have found that victims are most concerned with their treatment both within the criminal justice system and beyond.
  • More specifically, I have found that while the needs and concerns of victims are unique and do vary, on the whole victims want to be: informed, considered, protected and supported.
  • It is clear to me that the intention of Bill C-479 is to further consider and include victims of crime in our criminal justice system, and I fully support these aspects of the Bill.
  • I think this Bill puts forward some valuable changes to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act that would significantly enhance victims’ treatment and consideration in the process.
  • Many of these changes are, in fact, in line with recommendations that our Office has made in the past.
  • That being said, I think there are some minor modifications that would further strengthen the Bill and I would like to share those with the committee today.

Bill C-479

Changes to the information victims receive

  • Bill C-479 aims to address the lack of information victims receive by providing them with more information about the offender who harmed them. 
  • This is done in part through the Bill’s proposal to shift the onus on the Parole Board of Canada  or “PBC” from providing the information to victims on a discretionary basis, to ensuring that victims shall receive it.
  • I strongly support this amendment however I would suggest a modification.
  • As written, the Bill suggests that only certain items currently considered discretionary become mandatory.  I would suggest as a further modification, that all of the information currently listed discretionary be given to victims automatically, unless there is a relevant safety or security reason not to.
  • If the principle of the Bill is to provide victims with greater access to information, then I see no reason not to include all of these items.
  • Additionally, the proposed list of information to be provided to a victim includes information relating to the offender’s correctional plan.
  • We have often heard from victims who wish to know more about the offender’s progress towards rehabilitation. 
  • Through the Safe Streets and Communities Act (Bill C-10, in 2012) some information about the offender’s Program Participation and Serious Disciplinary Offences Report (PPDO) was made available to the victim at the discretion of Correctional Service of Canada or “CSC”.
  • However, the PPDO provides very little information for victims outside of the names of programs offenders may be taking, their status (i.e.: complete ongoing) and blanket descriptions of the programs overall goals.
  • The PPDO does not provide information relating to the offender’s risk, progress and overall rehabilitation and this is the information that victims are most interested in obtaining.
  • The correctional plan, on the other hand, provides much more comprehensive information that would be more meaningful for victims in understanding the risks an offender may pose, how those risks are being addressed and what progress, if any, he or she is making toward rehabilitation.
  • Given this, I fully support Bill C-479 in its proposals to provide victims with more information relating to the offender’s correctional plan.
  • As an additional note, many victims have expressed the desire to be informed of the commission of any new criminal code offences by the offender while under the supervision of the CSC.
  • As such I would recommend that Bill C-479 be amended to this information.
  • Finally, as a further modification to this area of the Bill there is an important technical oversight which could nullify the proposed benefits of the bill, once passed.
  • The bill proposes to expand the type of information provided to victims, and includes an amendment to section 142 of the CCRA authorizing the Parole Board to provide information related to the offender’s correctional plan.
  • The correctional plan is a document under the control of the CSC and is used to manage the offender while serving their sentence. Accordingly, the OFOVC recommends that CSC rather than PBC be authorized to provide this information through an amendment to section 26 of the CCRA, rather than only section 142.
  • Further, the same pertains to notifications to victims related to the date and destination of certain absences and release, as well as whether the offender will be in the vicinity of the victim while travelling to their release destination. These are all currently pieces of information also provided to victims by the CSC under section 26 of the CCRA, which is not provided for in the Bill.
  • In other words, I recommended that the proposed amendments to section 142 be mirrored in section 26 of the CCRA.

Changes in the victims’ role in the parole process

  • While ensuring that victims are properly informed is essential, it is equally important to create opportunities for victims to participate in the process and to create an environment to encourage that participation.
  • This means providing choices and options for how victims can choose to participate in the criminal justice system without feeling intimidated or fearful, and without causing significant disruption to their lives and finances.
  • One example of this is a parole hearing.
  • Parole hearings can be extremely important to some victims given that it is often the first opportunity since sentencing for the victims to learn more about the progress, if any, an offender has made towards rehabilitation.
  • While some victims will find it important and even necessary to face their offender in person, others may find this idea intimidating or generally undesirable.
  • In the current system attending or observing the parole hearing in real time is the only way that a victim can obtain the most complete information about the offender who harmed them and the progress they have made.
  • For those victims who are fearful of encountering their offender for any number of reasons, including fear of retaliation, there is a distinct lack of options for observing a parole hearing.
  • Only in exceptional circumstances can victims request that they attend the hearing via video conferencing technology or closed-circuit television. Attending by secure web cast or audio feed is not an option.
  • Bill C-479 aims to address this gap by proposing that in cases where a victim or a member of his or her family has been denied the ability attend a hearing, the Board shall provide for the victim or family member to follow the hearing by teleconference or by means of a one-way closed circuit video feed.
  • I would recommend two modifications to this proposal.
    • That the wording be amended so that it doesn’t merely permit victims to “follow” the hearing, but to participate by reading their prepared victim statements; and
    • that the option of a victim observing and/or participating in a parole hearing via teleconference, one-way circuit video feed or via video conferencing or other technology be extended to all victims, regardless of whether or not they have been denied attendance.
  • We must keep in mind that for some victims, work commitments, child care, caring for elderly parents or family members, financial restraints or their own emotional anxiety about being within close proximity to the offender may prohibit them from attending a hearing.
  • While the proposals in Bill C-479 are well intentioned to provide victims with greater access to the hearings, they neglect to take into account the fact that for many victims, attending a parole hearing is not always an option, regardless of whether their attendance has been approved.
  • This lack of options for attending a parole hearing in and of itself wouldn't be as problematic if a victim who did not attend the hearing had choices and options for reviewing the proceedings at a later date.
  • The reality, however, is that there are no alternatives for victims in this case; no transcripts are provided and victims cannot access an audio recording, even when it exists.
  • The only further material available to a victim who was not able to attend a hearing in person is a copy of the Decision Registry, which outlines the decision taken and main supporting reasons. It is in no way a full depiction of the information provided during the parole hearing.
  • Bill C-479 recognizes this need and attempts to address it by providing that if a transcript of the hearing has been made, a copy of it shall, on written request, be provided by the Board free of charge to the victim, a member of the victims’ family or the offender.
  • Unfortunately, while this clause has the victims’ needs in mind, the OFOVC understands that it is not currently the practice for transcripts to be made.  Instead audio recordings are kept as records of the parole hearing proceedings.
  • As such, this legislative change would not result in further access by victims to the proceedings of any given parole hearing.
  • Previously, the OFOVC has recommended that victims be granted access to listen to, not keep, audio recordings of the parole hearings and that there be potential funding support to travel to the locations at which these recordings are stored, as necessary.
  • As such I would recommend that the wording of the Bill be amended to state that victims, members of the victims family and the offender have access to, at no charge, any recordings, be they audio, audio-visual or otherwise, of the parole hearings.

Changes in time between parole hearings

  • In addition to increasing the information victims receive and their role in the system, Bill C-479 proposes to increase the time between parole hearings for violent offenders who are denied parole or have parole cancelled or terminated.
  • In 2010, the OFOVC released a report entitled Toward a Greater Respect for Victims in the Corrections and Conditional Release Act which recommended that the time between hearings be extended to 5 years for those serving life and indefinite sentences if an offender’s request for conditional release is denied.
  • The main difference between our Office’s recommendation and the changes put forward in this Bill centre around the types of offences. 
  • While the OFOVC recommended this change only for those serving life and indefinite sentences, the Bill moves to extend these timelines for any offender serving a minimum two year sentence for an offence involving violence, meaning murder or a Schedule 1 Offence.
  • This is a significant change when we consider that for some offenders who may be serving shorter sentences for violent offences (as opposed to life or indeterminate) this may preclude them from further parole review before they reach the end of their sentence, or warrant expiry date.
  • In this situation, some offenders may not have the opportunity to be supervised in the community before being released at their warrant expiry date without any supervision at all.
  • I am not an expert in the area of offender management and reintegration and therefore cannot conclusively say whether this would have any potential negative effects on the successful reintegration of offenders.
  • I would, however, suggest to the Committee that this is may be an important consideration for discussion with an appropriate subject matter expert.

CONCLUSION

  • In conclusion, I would like to reiterate my support for Bill C-479 and to commend the Bill’s efforts to address some of the gaps in information, participation and consideration that exist in our current system for victims of crime.
  • I feel that with the modifications I have suggested today the Bill could significantly help to enhance the treatment of victims of crime in Canada.
  • That being said I would encourage the Committee to seriously consider my amendments and suggestions for technical modification to make the Bill as sound and effective as possible.
  • I thank you for your time and look forward to any questions you may have.