The Pardons Backlog Continues

Have you ever thought finding a job was impossible? Most of us have at one time or another. But imagine looking for work with a criminal record holding you back? Then imagine knowing that Canadian law says you’re eligible to have that criminal record removed and that it should have been done years ago.

Now imagine the only reason that criminal record still exists at all, which is the only reason you can’t find work, is because of the Conservative government of Canada. You might just hope Stephen Harper will find himself looking for work about a year from now.

Thanks to the current government’s stance on criminal justice 22, 300 people found themselves unable to move on with their lives. It was all a result of the backlog of pardon applications that was created following the Conservative government’s User Fee Act.

It started back in spring 2012, when the Parole Board of Canada increased the fee for a pardon from $150 to $631. That was the moment when finding a job became impossible for thousands of people who want to do better. And I’m not even talking about the people who just can’t afford it anymore.

“I can’t get on with my life,” said a guy on the phone, we can call him John. He’s just one of the many people I’ve spoken with recently. “I’m legally allowed to, but I can’t. Try raising two kids on minimum wage jobs.”

Recently the Parole Board announced more good news regarding the backlog that was created as a result of the legislation passed by the Conservative government. Originally scheduled to be cleared by March 2014, the backlog is moving forward slower than ever, with no final clearance date in sight. The Board finally updated its backlog status. It is now expecting to have close to 70% of it cleared by March 31st 2015. This isn’t actually good news.

It also stopped processing indictable offences completely. It’s doing nothing. If you have an indictable offence on your record that application is sitting somewhere. It’s complete. It was prepared properly. You’re legally eligible to get your pardon. It’s just that no one is even going to look at it.

What about summary offences? Originally scheduled to be done already, the Board is looking to that late 2015 date to have them complete, at which time we can assume it might start dusting off the indictable cases.

Since the eligibility waiting period for a summary offence was increased from 3 years to 5 years, as a result of the Conservative’s omnibus crime bill, it’s fair to wonder if the backlog is just a stall tactic. Is it a way to make people who were eligible under the old rules wait the time required under the new rules? I’ve no idea and I’m not sure it matters. But if so, indictable offences should be cleared up 3-4 years from now, maybe more. It’s not fair of course but what can you do? Taking the Parole Board of Canada to Federal Court comes with a hefty price tag. It’s a price beyond the reach of most people looking for work.

In the meantime John and several thousand other applicants are stuck in limbo, watching their lives pass them by. They can’t get a pardon. They can’t get a job. And they can’t even get answers. What they can get is a sound bite from the Conservative government about keeping the streets and communities safe. They can be told the government has a strong mandate to tackle criminal justice, at a time when crime had been decreasing for decades. But they can’t get a pardon and they can’t get on with their lives. Assurances from the Parole Board of Canada that it has taken significant steps to fix the problem sound just as hollow as the all the tough on crime stuff by now.

“I just want a chance,” John said as our talk was coming to an end. “I’ve had great opportunities. I’ve been offered jobs. It’s not like I’m not trying. But something I did 20 years ago is holding me back. Every job needs a background check these days.”

And that’s to be the problem with this administration’s stance on criminal justice. It’s stuck in the past, unable to see the evidence that’s right in front of them and the problems that ignoring evidence inevitably creates. It’s also unable to see people who’ve already paid their debt as real people.

But John is a real person and Canadian law says he is eligible for his pardon, as are the thousands of other people stuck in this mess.

The Parole Board of Canada and the Federal Conservative government should let them have it.

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