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Bill C- 483, Corrections and Conditional Release Act

 

Hon. Michael L. MacDonald moved second reading of Bill C- 483, An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (escorted temporary absence).

He said: Honourable senators, today I'm very pleased to rise in support of Bill C-483. This proposed legislation has been amended in the other place to ensure that the escorted temporary absence scheme can be effectively implemented while respecting the original intent of the private member's bill. As it stands, Bill C-483 would go a long way toward ensuring stronger and more consistent case management of offenders serving life sentences imposed as a minimum punishment. Effectively, we are talking about those who have been convicted of first-degree or second-degree murder and those convicted of high treason.

There are two types of escorted temporary absences or ETAs. Allow me to take a moment to explain the difference between the two. First, we have non-rehabilitative escorted temporary absences. These are granted to an offender out of necessity, such as when an offender needs to attend a court proceeding or to receive medical treatment not available within a penitentiary. Given that these types of absences are obligatory, they are not an indication that an offender is participating in his or her correctional plan but are simply a mechanism to allow for temporary exit, under escort, from the penitentiary out of legal or medical necessity.

We also have escorted temporary absences for rehabilitative purposes. These may be granted to offenders who are engaged in their correctional plans. They assist offenders in their rehabilitation and gradual reintegration into society. Rehabilitative ETAs are granted for a number of purposes, such as community service, community-based rehabilitative programs, family contact and parental responsibilities. Again, these ETAs are also temporary by nature and may be for as short as a few hours or several days, depending on the circumstances, but always under escort.

For both types of ETAs, the criteria for granting release are outlined in the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. They focus on the risk posed by the offender and require a structured release plan in every case. Under the current system, non- rehabilitative escorted temporary absences for medical, court or coroner's inquests may be granted at any time by an institutional head of Corrections Canada, given the nature of the absence.

However, for rehabilitative ETAs, the Parole Board of Canada is currently the decision-making authority from the start of the sentence up until day parole eligibility. For example, in the case of someone whose parole eligibility is set at 25 years, day parole eligibility would begin at 22 years. For the first 22 years, the parole board decides whether or not to approve the rehabilitative ETA.

Once the offender has served that first part of the sentence, in our example 22 years, the Correctional Service of Canada takes over authority to grant rehabilitative escorted temporary absences.

The rationale for this approach has been that as someone gets closer to parole eligibility, the case management efforts should be stepped up to help prepare the individual for eventual full parole consideration. A successful track record of ETAs would demonstrate to the parole board that someone is trustworthy and likely a good candidate for further re-entry into the community.

Under the proposed legislation before us, the escorted temporary absence scheme for this category of offenders would change. Authority to grant escorted temporary absences for rehabilitative purposes could potentially remain with the parole board for an offender's entire life sentence. We would be giving the Parole Board of Canada the authority to continue authorizing ETAs after an offender has reached day parole eligibility by removing the automatic transfer of releasing authority from the parole board to the Correctional Service of Canada at day parole eligibility.

The nuance here is that once an offender has passed day parole eligibility and has been granted and successfully completed a rehabilitative ETA by the parole board, the authority to grant future rehabilitative absences will be transferred to the Correctional Service of Canada. However, if an offender does not successfully complete a subsequent escorted temporary absence, for example, by breaching a condition of the release, decision-making authority will revert back to the parole board.

Honourable senators may ask themselves, why does this matter? Isn't the current system working? We know that, at the current time, 99 per cent of ETAs are successful, and we know that these types of ETAs are an essential tool in the criminal justice system. They can act as good indicators for an offender's behaviour and progress and can help the Correctional Service of Canada decide whether or not to recommend an offender's release on parole.

Why, then, would victims call for changes to the system? Why would they ask for the authority to remain with the parole board throughout the entire time the offender remains behind bars? Simply put, they want a voice in the process, and they want to be aware of how decisions are being made to grant escorted temporary absences for rehabilitative purposes.

Victims of crime and their advocates have long called on government to move ahead with measures that give them a meaningful role when decisions are made about an offender leaving a federal institution — whether it is a temporary absence, day or full parole. They want to be informed and they want to be empowered.

Let's look at the example I provided earlier — as the law stands today — for an offender serving a life sentence who is eligible for full parole at 25 years. For the first 22 years of the sentence, the decision-making authority for ETAs for rehabilitative purposes rests with the Parole Board of Canada. During that time, when the parole board reviews an application for this type of absence, it is obligated to inform victims. If the parole board is holding a hearing to review the application for an ETA, victims have the opportunity to attend the hearing.

That is the process for the first 22 years of the sentence. After the 22-year mark, releasing authority for these absences rests with the Correctional Service of Canada. Once decision-making authority is transferred to the Correctional Service of Canada, decisions are rendered by wardens, who consult with institutional parole officers — the people charged with assisting offenders in their rehabilitation and community reintegration — as well as with the Correctional Service of Canada victim services officers.

However, there are no formal hearings when the institutional heads at the federal institution make decisions on escorted temporary absences. Victims want an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process for ETAs after an inmate has reached day parole eligibility, and that is what this bill would give them.

The changes this bill proposes fall in line with this government's work to keep victims informed and involved. As honourable senators know, this government has introduced several changes in recent years to strengthen victims' role in the conditional release system.

In 2012, the Safe Streets and Communities Act ushered in some meaningful changes that assured that victims can participate in parole board hearings and that they are better informed about the behaviour and management of offenders.

Furthermore, this government recently introduced the victims bill of rights act and supported private members' bills related to extending mandatory review periods and providing victims with more details about an offender's release. These bills all work towards the common goal of ensuring that victims have a voice in our criminal justice system and they complement the legislation before us.

Giving the parole board greater decision-making authority over escorted temporary absences would give victims a greater role in the process. I believe this is an important bill; it does good work, and I ask all honourable senators to join me in supporting its passage. Thank you.