Madam Speaker, I am really pleased to participate in this debate today. This is a really important issue for Canadians and for our communities.
I want to commend the member who has put forward Bill C-394 as a very sincere and thoughtful effort to do something about the proliferation of gangs and gang membership across Canadian society. I think it is a very well-motivated and good-faith initiative.
It tries to make it an offence to recruit, solicit, encourage or even invite a person to join a criminal organization. It would change the penalties if such a person did join a criminal organization. That is where we part ways with the member and the government. It is with respect to their position in this regard.
We strongly support efforts to combat and criminalize the recruitment of individuals, particularly young people, into gangs and criminal organizations. However, we are just as strongly opposed to mandatory minimum penalties. Studies everywhere on the planet prove that such sentences do not deter criminals or make Canadians safer.
However, we do support in the bill the expansion of the definition of “criminal organization offence” to include gang recruitment. This, we believe, would be a very good step toward dealing with our challenge, which is improving the situation of gangs and gang membership.
As I said, we are alarmed about the increasing number of Canadians, particularly young people, who are recruited into gangs. We support the criminalization of this activity.
However, with regard to this question of mandatory minimum sentences for gang recruitment, all the evidence from Canada, the United States, state by state by state; New Zealand; Australia; the United Kingdom; and everywhere this has been tried is overwhelmingly that mandatory minimums do not work. They are ineffective. They are often constitutionally challenged. They are problematic, because they remove the discretion from judges, who are best placed to assess the situation based on the evidence and the facts of the case in front of him or her.
We also know that mandatory minimums do not deter crime.
On the other hand, we know for sure that what mandatory minimums do is increase recidivism. They actually make it more likely that a person who gets a mandatory minimum sentence comes back and offends again. How can that be good when we are talking about dealing with young people, in particular?
Half of gang membership in Canada is under the age of 18. When we increase recidivism, we get into a vicious circle that in turn increases crime. That has a more discriminatory impact on more vulnerable groups, notably, in Canada, our aboriginal young people, among whom gang recruitment is higher than it is in other parts of our society.
In my own community of Ottawa South, I deal with community police officers all the time. These are front-line officers, men and women, who are charged with the responsibility of dealing with so-called hot spots. All of us as members of Parliament deal with these in our ridings, particularly in urban spaces.
They tell us that the ticket now, the key, is to get to kids between the ages of 8 and 12. That is the time to get to kids with activities, particularly post-school activities, that keep them on the right track.
Let us talk about that for a second. What are the circumstances that lead kids, young people in particular, to join gangs?
We know it is linked to, for example, neighbourhood crime. We know it is directly linked to poverty levels. We know it is partly about peer pressure and peer influence.
We know it is sometimes about the lack of vigilance by parents, teachers and community members and leaders. We know it has to do with a lack of opportunities for positive after-school recreation programs, for example, or homework clubs. We know it is linked to substance abuse and alcohol use. We know that this is altogether tied into a large challenge.
We think the government should be investing more in activities that engage our kids, rather than forcing mandatory minimums on judges and then downloading to the provinces the responsibility to build more jails. By the way, that is a strategy that was tried in Texas and California. Is it not interesting that the governors of both of those states have now publicly denounced that experiment? In California, the state legislature is now struggling with the weight of the cost of prisons. This is a huge part of California’s teetering right now on the verge of bankruptcy.
Liberals believe that we should be investing more in soccer fields and music groups and in making our recreational spaces more available for kids. It is not a bad idea, especially when we are dealing with a childhood obesity epidemic and all kinds of health challenges related to sedentary lifestyles.
We are alarmed by the increase in the number of kids joining gangs. We support the provisions of the bill that actually go a ways in criminalizing the recruitment of kids. However, we just do not understand the government’s fixation on mandatory minimums. We know that it is a narrative the government uses for its base, but it flies in the face of all experience. It flies in the face of our community policing. Front-line officers tell us that it is not working. We are scratching our heads and asking why the government wants to spend all this money on incarceration, when we know that every dollar we spend up front saves us $40 afterwards in terms of costs for criminal enforcement, incarceration, parole and beyond.
We think the bill is good in a halfway respect, but unfortunately, it goes the wrong way when it comes to mandatory minimums. As a result, we will not be supporting this bill.