Larry Bagnell says it’s unlikely his bill making fetal alcohol spectrum disorder a mitigating factor across Canada when people are sentenced in court is going to pass, but Yukon’s MP hasn’t completely given up hope.
Bagnell’s bill, C-235, was debated for the last time Tuesday in Canada’s House of Commons. It is scheduled to go to a final vote next week.
Bagnell said he believes the vote might be close, but he doesn’t think it’s going to become law.
“I think it’s pretty disappointing from my perspective, but more for the people living with FASD,” he said.
Along with making FASD a mitigating factor in criminal sentencing, Bagnell’s bill would allow judges to order assessments, require courts to create plans to help offenders reintegrate into society and require the correctional system to recognize FASD as a disability.
It is a bill that has garnered support from many in the justice system, including the Canadian Bar Association.
FASD is a brain injury caused when a mother drinks during pregnancy. It limits healthy brain development, including the ability to understand cause and effect.
Bagnell said he believes some Liberals, including cabinet ministers, are preparing to vote against the bill. So are some members of the Conservative Party, he said.
During yesterday’s debate, William Blair, the parliamentary secretary for the minister of justice, questioned whether a specific disorder, like FASD, should be singled out.
“The bill’s proposal to include only FASD would likely raise questions about why the law does not also specifically identify any other disorder and may lead to calls for their inclusion in the future,” he said.
Blair pointed to a report released last October by representatives of federal, territorial and provincial justice ministers. Those government officials looked at FASD in the justice system generally and concluded that legislative change was not the right way to go and instead called for “policy or program changes.”
Bagnell said that others who disagree with the bill have also quoted the report. He said he doesn’t know much about it, but he clearly disagrees with its conclusions and has data from other experts to refute its claims.
Bagnell said people with FASD should be recognized specifically in the law because of the numbers who are involved in the justice system.
In the Yukon, for example, a recent study by the Justice Department found that 17.5 per cent of the people in jail had FASD. That’s compared to about one per cent in the general population.
Bagnell said if someone with a different disorder were to successfully argue the law should be changed to help them, “I would say we’re just helping someone else that needs help,” he said.
He doesn’t deny all types of services need to be available for people with FASD, including programs to help them stay out of court.
“But nevertheless, huge percentages of them are getting there and it’s not a reason to treat them unfairly, just because there’s some preventive measures that didn’t actually prevent them (from ending up in court.)”
He disagrees with another argument that requiring assessments would create a bottleneck in the justice system.
The real bottleneck, he said, is when people with FASD end up in and out of court in part because of their disability.
Not everyone yesterday spoke out against the bill.
Robert-Falcon Ouellette, the Liberal MP for Winnipeg Centre, said he’s supporting the bill.
“We should be focused on ensuring that our most vulnerable citizens are not imprisoned due to a lack of resources, or time, or effort, or cost, or perhaps just the plain laziness of bureaucracy and the inability of systems to be flexible,” he said.
Bagnell said a lot of MPs still don’t know about his bill. In the week leading up to the final vote he plans on sending everyone packages outlining the support he has received, including a letter from the Canadian Bar Association, research groups and doctors.
“Frankly I think we’re on the side of the angels,” he said. “I think we have good legal expertise, psychological and biological support, and the experts across Canada have been calling for this.”
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