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Submission to the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, on Bill C-483

An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (Escorted Temporary Absences)
Submitted by Sue O'Sullivan, Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime
December 3rd, 2014

Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

The Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime (OFOVC) is an independent resource for victims in Canada. The Office was created in 2007 to ensure the federal government meets its responsibilities to victims of crime.

Our mandate relates exclusively to matters of federal jurisdiction and enables the Office:

  • to promote access by victims to existing federal programs and services for victims;
  • to address complaints of victims about compliance with the provisions of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act that apply to victims of crimes committed by offenders under federal jurisdiction;
  • to promote awareness of the needs and concerns of victims and the applicable laws that benefit victims of crime, including to promote the principles set out in the Canadian Statement of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime with respect to matters of federal jurisdiction, among criminal justice personnel and policy makers;
  • to identify and review emerging and systemic issues, including those issues related to programs and services provided or administered by the Department of Justice or the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, that impact negatively on victims of crime; and
  • to facilitate access by victims to existing federal programs and services by providing them with information and referrals.

Introduction

Bill C-483 seeks to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act to require the Parole Board of Canada (PBC) to authorize escorted temporary absences (ETA) for an offender serving a life sentence.

Currently, an Institutional Head (i.e. the Warden) with the Correctional Services Canada (CSC) has the authority to grant all non-medical and administrative ETAs once an offender serving a life sentence is within 3 years of full parole eligibility.

With the changes of Bill C-483, the Parole Board of Canada would authorize the first ETA and if the offender was successful and did not breach any conditions, the Warden would then have the authority to grant subsequent ETAs. If any further ETAs are cancelled because of a breach of conditions, the authority would be returned to the Parole Board to make future decisions for ETAs until one proved to be successful.

Bill C-483 can be seen as a shift in authority over ETAs for offenders serving life sentences from the Warden to the Parole Board of Canada.

This submission is not aimed at commenting on which authority is better suited to make these decisions. Offender management is not the OFOVC’s expertise and therefore we do not wish to comment on which organization should be the releasing authority for ETAs for offenders serving a life sentence.

The focus of this submission will be to discuss the differences in the process of granting temporary absences between the PBC and the CSC to show that the better process is the one that is most transparent and inclusive of victims of crime.

Summary of OFOVC’s Position

Through our work we have found that, at a minimum, victims of crime want to be informed, considered, protected and supported, especially when it comes to granting a temporary release from an institution.

We have heard from a number of victims who are frustrated by the lack of transparency in the Warden’s decision-making process.

Under the PBC’s system, victims are provided reasoning and rationale for decisions. Specifically, victims are informed and involved in the following ways:

    • 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.
    • Victims who attend a hearing are able to bear witness to a more fulsome account of the offender’s progress and rehabilitation.
    • Moreover, 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 or deny parole was taken.
    • While victims are given the opportunity to update their impact statement prior to release decisions by Warden’s and the Parole Board, the Parole Board’s process allows victims to present, not just submit, an impact statement outlining the harm they have suffered as a result of the crime. Although not all victims choose this option, we have spoken to victims who have described this opportunity to share the impact directly with the offender as 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.

 

These channels of information, consideration and support are not, however available to victims in the case of a Wardens’ decision.

In contrast to PBC hearings, victims have little to no role in a Warden’s board process and are given access to very few details and explanations on decisions.

Understandably, victims find it difficult to accept that an offender who is serving a life sentence for a serious crime, such as murder, could be granted any type of release without a process that informs or involves them.

As such, the OFOVC supports any amendment to legislation that prioritizes a more transparent, open and inclusive process for victims.

Recommendations

Although the OFOVC is pleased to see some enhancements being made for victims of crime, Bill C-483 is limited to offenders serving a life sentence. It does not apply to offenders who are serving other types of federal sentences.

In practical terms, this means that the important enhancements of this bill 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 whereby the Warden remains the granting authority for ETA’s unescorted temporary absences, voluntary transfers, and work releases. .

While the OFOVC encourages the Government of Canada to ensure its laws and policies better meet the needs and concerns of victims of crime, we also recognize that broadening Bill C-483 to apply to all federal offenders would undoubtedly be of concern for the Parole Board of Canada and would need to be examined and addressed.

To address the narrow scope of Bill C-483, the OFOVC recommends that the Committee consider amending the Bill so that any authority who is responsible for granting any type of release is accountable for providing a transparent and inclusive process for victims; one that ensures that victims have opportunities and supports that are at least equivalent to those currently available at 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 a system in which all participants feel respected, informed and considered.

Conclusion

Victims have identified the need to be informed, considered, protected and supported at all stages of the criminal justice process, up to and including conditional release into the community. With this in mind, the OFOVC supports Bill C- 483 in its move to enhance the escorted temporary absence process in order to better meet the needs of victims of crime.

However, the OFOVC has also identified opportunities and provided recommendations to ensure that both releasing authorities provide a decision-making process that is transparent, inclusive and better meets the needs of victims of crime.

The OFOVC thanks the Committee for its consideration of this important legislation and the recommendations provided. We invite all Members to contact us with any further questions or concerns; we would be happy to assist you.