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Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security: Bill C-483

Witness: Ms. Sue O’Sullivan, Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime
Appearing March 25, 2014 4:30 PM

Greetings

  • Good afternoon Mr. Chair and members of the Committee.
  • Thank you for inviting me here today to discuss Bill C-483, 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.

Introduction

  • Bill C-483 seeks to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act to shift the authority of the Warden to authorize the escorted temporary absence; or “ETA”, of an offender convicted of first or second degree murder, within 3 years of full parole eligibility, to the Parole Board of Canada.
  • At its core, this Bill aims to bring a more transparent and inclusive process to victims of crime.
  • I fully support this shift and the benefits it brings to victims.
  • I think it is also important to acknowledge that Bill C-483 specifically proposes to remove granting authority from one organization and give it to another.  In doing so one might question which of the two authorities is in the best position to decide on the offender’s progress and ability to reintegrate into the community.
  • My remarks today do not in any way reflect any judgements or suggestions that one of these authorities has a greater capacity to make these decisions. 
  • That is not my area of expertise and I will not speculate on that aspect of this suggested amendment.
  • Instead, what does concern me, and what I do see as a clear advantage of the amendments proposed in this bill, is the benefit to victims of ultimately having a more transparent, informative and inclusive process.
  • It is within these parameters that I will provide my comments.

Support for Bill C-483

  • Through our work we have generally found that at a minimum, victims of crime want to be: informed, considered, protected and supported. 
  • Given this, it would not be surprising for you to learn that we have heard from a number of victims who are frustrated by the lack of transparency in the warden’s process.
  • They find it difficult to understand why someone who has committed a serious crime, such as murder, could be granted any type of release without a process that informs or involves the victim.
  • In contrast to parole hearings, victims have little to no role in a Warden’s board process.
  • To be more specific, parole hearings are a much more informative and inclusive process for victims.
    • Victims have a right to be informed in advance of a pending parole hearing as well as the option to apply to attend that hearing.
    • For those victims who do attend a hearing, they are able to bear witness to a reasonably fulsome account of the offender’s progress and rehabilitation. Even victims who are unable to attend the hearing still have access to the Decision Registry which, while not providing full information about the offender’s progress, does outline the reasons why a particular decision to grant/deny parole was taken.
    • Victims are more fully considered in the parole process in that they are given the opportunity to update their impact statement to respond to, and reflect, the specific release decision being made.  Without this opportunity Warden’s boards may potentially review an outdated and/or less relevant earlier version of their statement. Additionally, within the parole hearing process, victims are able to present, not just submit, an impact statement outlining the harm they have suffered as a result of the crime. While not all victims choose this option, victims we have spoken to describe this opportunity to share the impact directly with the offender an important to their healing journey.
    • Finally, in addition there are funding supports available to help victims cover some of the expenses associated with attending the hearing.
  • None of these same channels of information, consideration and support are available to victim in the case of a Wardens’ board.
  • As such, I would support the amendments in Bill C-483 which require a more transparent, open and inclusive process for victims.

Further recommendations

  • That being said, while I am pleased to see these enhancements being made for victims of those serving life sentences, Bill C-483 does not address the need for information and meaningful participation for victims where offenders are serving all other types of federal sentences.
  • In these cases, the Warden remains the granting authority for ETA’s (including non-medical or court-related), unescorted temporary absences, voluntary transfers, and work releases.  
  • In practical terms, this means that these important enhancements will only apply to approximately 18% of the offenders currently in the federal system, leaving the victims of the remaining 82% of offenders with a process that does not sufficiently inform or include them 1.
  • While it is my job to encourage the Government of Canada to ensure its laws and policies better meet the needs and concerns of victims of crime, I am also aware that the practical implications of broadening Bill C-483 to apply to all federal offenders, and not just those serving life sentences, would undoubtedly be of concern for the Parole Board of Canada and would need to be examined and addressed.
  • To address the issue, I would recommend that in amending the Bill, the Committee consider making all authorities responsible for release decisions accountable for providing a transparent and inclusive process for victims; one that ensures the same opportunities and supports that currently exist for victims attending parole hearings.
  • These changes are important not only as a means of addressing victims concerns, but in strengthening the system overall.
  • We know that procedural fairness is crucial to increasing and maintaining public confidence in the criminal justice system, which means we need a system whereby all participants feel respected, informed and heard.

Conclusion

  • In conclusion I support Bill C-483 in its move to enhance the release-granting process in order to better meet the needs of victims of crime.
  • I also recommend that these same amendments should apply to all victims of offenders currently in the federal system, ensuring that all victims are equally able to access a system that better informs, considers, protects and supports them.
  • Thank you very much for your time.
  • I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

1 According to CSC performance Management report for 2012-2013, there are  2842 offenders serving an indeterminate sentence. According to Correctional Services Canada’s Departmental performance Report, on any given day in 2012-2013, there were 15,056 offenders in federal custody (including offenders with suspension of a conditional release), and 7,706 offenders in the community.