On March 30, 2010, the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime (OFOVC) released its second special report Toward a Greater Respect for Victims of Crime in the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. The Report proposed a number of recommendations to the federal government to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA) in order to enhance and strengthen victims' rights in Canada.
The Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA)
Enacted in 1992, the CCRA provides the legal framework for the incarceration and supervision of offenders, their conditional release process and oversight. For the first time, the Act also provided recognition for victims of offenders under federal supervision. Since that time, various studies and reviews carried out by victims' advocates, Parliamentarians and the federal government have identified a systemic imbalance when it comes to the rights of the offenders versus the rights of the victims.
Treating victims with compassion and respect
The Canadian Statement of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crimes was adopted by all federal, provincial, and territorial ministers responsible for Justice in 1988 (and renewed in 2003) and serves to guide the development of government legislation and policies in order to respond to the needs of crime victims of crime. As part of its mandate, the OFOVC promotes the principles set out in the Statement in an effort to uphold Canada's commitment.
Presently, the CCRA does not incorporate the principles outlined in the Statement and, as such, the federal policies and procedures developed from these regulations do not sufficiently consider the needs and concerns of victims of crime. For that reason, the OFOVC recommends that the Government of Canada introduce amendments to the CCRA to reflect the Statement and the interests of victims.
Providing information to victims
Recommendations 2, 3, 4 and 5
In Canada, the onus is on the victim to seek out where and how to register in order to receive ongoing information about the offender who harmed them. Given that many victims may be unaware this service exists, or may feel incapable of taking on yet another task at this difficult time in their lives, the OFOVC recommends that the Government amend the CCRA to collect victims' contact information and reach out to victims in a proactive manner, informing them of their rights within six months of sentencing (for offenders who receive federal sentences).
Once registered, victims will receive ongoing communication with regard to the offender; however, many victims have expressed frustration with the limited information they receive and concern about their safety in light of this. As such, the OFOVC has recommended that the Government of Canada provide the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) and the National Parole Board (NPB) the discretion to show a photograph of the offender to a registered victim, provide advance notice of all prison transfers to victims, where possible, and that victims gain the legislated right to more information, be it information that is currently considered discretionary under the CCRA or further information regarding an offender's progress.
Recommendations 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11
Currently a victim's right to attend a parole hearing and present a victim impact statement in Canada is not enshrined in law. Since 2001, the NPB has permitted victims to present victim impact statements. Though few victims are ever denied their application, victims want their important role in these hearings recognized and formalized in law.
While attendance is important for victims, the CCRA does not consider victims when hearings are scheduled, postponed or cancelled. Under the current law, an offender has the right to cancel a parole hearing without advance notice and without providing a reason to the victim or the victim's family. This can have a devastating impact on victims who make extensive travel plans and arrangements for work and child care in order to attend the hearing, not to mention the emotional preparation. For those victims who do attend hearings, being in the same room with the offender can be intimidating. In order to better accommodate those victims, the Report recommends that a greater effort should be made, where possible, to consult with victims about hearing dates, to accommodate the victim's attendance via video conferencing or other real-time technology, and to provide victims with access to archived recordings of the hearings.
The frequency of hearings can also impact victims. Victims have stated that repeated hearings every couple of years significantly hampers their ability to move forward and heal and, instead, forces them to relive and endure their horrors again and again, thereby revictimizing them. To address this, the Report recommends that for victims whose offenders are serving indefinite or life sentences, the time between hearings be extended from every two years to every five years.
Recommendations 12 and 13
For some victims, restitution is an important principle. Beyond its benefit to victims, restitution promotes a sense of accountability and responsibility amongst offenders who are forced to acknowledge the harm done.
While restitution is ordered by the courts as part of an offender's sentence, it is the responsibility of the CSC or the NPB to ensure offenders satisfy that aspect of their sentences. Although it is not currently known how many offenders in the federal corrections system have restitution orders, very little has been done to enforce these orders. It is often argued that inmates' wages are low, and even those working in the community have financial challenges; however, it is equally true that victims may also be suffering financial difficulties, often as a result of the offence committed against them. In fact, according to research, victims carry 67% of the costs of crime.
In order to address this imbalance, the OFOVC recommends that the CCRA be amended to authorize the CSC to deduct reasonable amounts from an offender's earnings to satisfy any outstanding restitution or victim fine surcharge orders.
If incorporated, the recommendations put forward by the OFOVC would help advance and enhance the rights of victims of crime in Canada and help to better address their needs and concerns. More importantly, Canada would take the next important step towards ensuring that victims have equal rights to offenders and a true voice in the Canadian criminal justice system. The OFOVC looks forward to swift and decisive action by the federal government and the Minister of Public Safety.