The Conservative government has thrown its support behind a private member's bill aimed at giving victims better access to parole board hearings and limiting the frequency of reviews for violent offenders.
Bill C-479, introduced by Conservative MP David Sweet, would increase the maximum time between hearings for violent offenders to five years from two and require parole boards to make a greater effort to allow victims and their families to present statements during hearings or provide written or recorded submissions.
Some of the proposed changes reflect recommendations from Sue O'Sullivan, the federal victims' ombudsman. Ms. O'Sullivan has said that victims should have the automatic right to attend parole hearings unless there are clear reasons to bar them. She has also asked that offenders lose the ability to withdraw parole applications on short notice.
But the bill is raising concerns that the proposed wait of up to five years between parole hearings could make it harder for offenders to reintegrate after their release, particularly those serving sentences of five years or less.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the bill would strengthen victims' rights and give victims and their families more opportunities to be heard in the parole process. And he said the longer wait for violent offenders would help protect victims from the strain of attending more frequent hearings.
"I think what happens is that individuals, under the present system, are re-victimized every two years, because it's essentially mandatory," Mr. Toews said. "And even where an individual has no hope of getting parole, the hearing proceeds and re-victimizes the victims."
Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society, said victims can have good reasons to attend some parole board hearings, pointing to situations where it is likely that an offender would return to a community where the offence was committed or where a victim requests particular conditions on the individual's release, such as a no-contact order.
But she said the release system is not designed to give victims a meaningful say in whether a person is released because those people have no knowledge of the offender's behaviour while in jail. "The parole decision should really be looking at what progress the person has made against his rehabilitation plan and what risk he poses now," she said.
Ms. Latimer added that those who are serving less than five years might have only one opportunity for parole under the proposed changes. That means that if their first application is rejected, the likelihood is greater that they would serve their full sentence and be released without the kinds of conditions a parole board can impose.
Mr. Sweet's bill is the third private member's bill on criminal justice that the government has supported in recent weeks. During a debate on Conservative MP Parm Gill's gang recruitment bill last week, Liberal MP Sean Casey accused the government of using backbench MPs to avoid an obligation to check proposed legislation for compliance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Speaking to reporters about the parole-hearing bill on Wednesday, Mr. Toews said most of the private members' bills the government has supported are focused on specific issues and relate to concerns from constituents. "We are giving our upper benchers, our backbenchers, a real say in Parliament. They're accomplishing what their constituents have sent them here to do," he said.