Stephen Harper’s Reform Proposition

I spend each work day speaking to people across Canada who have a criminal record and who can benefit from a Canadian pardon. So I am in a unique position to comment on the recent proposal to amend the current system of pardons.

The majority of people seeking pardons are for summary offences. Upwards of 90% of the people I speak to have never spent a day in jail. These are the people who made simple mistakes in life. They paid a small fine or served a year of probation. These are the everyday people that we all know. Ask around and it will not take long to find a friend or relative with a summary conviction and a criminal record. It is with these people that the pardon program makes the most sense. Regarding summary offences, nothing needs to be changed.

It is hard to understand why the conservative government would amend the program for summary offences at all. We can be tough on crime without losing sight of common sense in the process. Rubber stamping pardons for applicants with relatively benign criminal offences makes sense. And 3 years is a reasonable benchmark to ensure that the applicant has chosen to live by the law. I am not sure that an extra 2 years will serve the public interest. At the very least I have heard nothing resembling evidence supporting the assumption.

But with the recent uproar over the pardoning of Graham James and the potential pardon of Karla Homolka the need for reform clearly exists. Indictable offences are indeed more serious and with these` cases rubber stamping is not appropriate. Unfortunately our government has not handled the issue well because the reform deserves far more consideration that it has been given. One month is not enough time to overhaul a program that has a 40 year success record. Out of 400,000 successful pardon applications we have exactly two sensational cases. 1, in 200,000 failures is, in my opinion, an astonishing success. And yet that does not mean there isn’t room for improvement.

Since it was no surprise to anyone involved in the justice system that Karla Homolka would be eligible for a pardon, bringing up her name after the media storm smacks of politicking. Unfortunately it paints the Prime Minister as an opportunist out of touch with our judicial system and more concerned with media headlines than with the victims he claims to represent. It is their experiences that demand the reform be done in the best interest of the people of Canada. The reform needs to be made as a means of preventing future victimization first and public outrage second. And we should not lose sight of the fact that the purpose of a pardon is to rehabilitate.

What the pardon program really needs is a clearer definition of a serious offence. We can only assume that by serious offence Mr. Toews really means indictable offence. But I have seen marijuana possession charges where the crown proceeded by indictment. It would be hard to reasonably argue that such a crime sits in the same realm as the likes of Karla Homolka and Graham James. In the former case ten years to wait for a pardon is far too much. In the latter examples it is not enough.

Perhaps a third classification is required. Indictable offence is not an exclusive category and I would bet the public would recognize the difference between the Karla Homolka / Graham James cases and the majority of indictable offences that actually make it to the pardon application stage. Furthermore, for all the talk of pardon reform there has been no discussion of how the pardon program is inextricably linked to sentencing. Had Karla Homolka not secured a plea bargain she would be locked away in prison and a pardon would be the furthest thing from her mind. Had Graham James been charged with the number of offences popular opinion believes he committed he would likely be in jail as well. It is unfortunate that sentencing has not been looked at in relation to the pardon program reforms that are being proposed.

When it comes to policy as important as this we should not be willing to settle for media headlines and politicking. We should demand much more than the very limited time and thought our government has given the issue. A better understanding of both the judicial system and the pardon program would have been a good place to start. A clear definition of what the reform wants to accomplish would be another.

Simply changing the name to “record suspensions” and making it slightly harder, or take slightly longer, to obtain the exact same result is bad policy, as sensible as some of the proposals may sound.

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