It’s hard to imagine a Canadian government more incompetent on social issues than the Federal Conservatives were on criminal justice. Take the pardon program for example. Under the leadership of Stephen Harper changes were made to the pardon system that cut the number of applicants by more than half.
From 2012 to 2015 requests dropped from 29,829 pardons to 12,743 record suspensions, as they were called under the new rules. It’s fair to wonder if that was the goal all along.
The changes were made in response to notorious sex offender Graham James receiving a pardon. The public was understandably upset and the appropriate response was a review of the system. But instead of a simple measure to prevent high profile offenders from getting a pardon, the Conservatives decided to overhaul the whole thing, thereby affecting even people with only minor criminal records.
Sex offences are difficult to come to terms with, particularly when the victim is a child. This is why nobody spoke out against provisions to prevent applicants like Mr. James from putting their past behind them. But in fact it wasn’t the Conservatives that accomplished that goal at all. It was Bill C23A – legislation submitted by the NDP – that gave the Parole Board the power to refuse applications it deemed contrary to the public good. But despite the fact that offenders like Graham James should never receive a pardon, we also shouldn’t judge the program’s success based on a single case.
At the time the story broke approximately 400, 000 people had already been granted a pardon, thereby sealing their criminal record and allowing them to find decent work. Today over 96% of those remain in effect. It’s an astonishing statistic that speaks to the program’s success, proving the vast majority of people who get a pardon go on to live productive, crime free lives.
Unfortunately the Conservative’s didn’t see it that way and they were increasingly adept at ignoring evidence. So while the NDP bill should have been the end of it, the Conservatives launched Bill C23B, which eventually passed as a part of the omnibus crime bill – Bill C10.
Bill C10 increased the waiting periods to apply for a pardon from 3 years for minor offences to 5. It also increased the waiting periods for more serious offences from 5 years to 10. Since the waiting periods only take affect after the sentence is complete, offenders can wait up to 15 years or more before trying to put their past behind them.
Certain people were excluded entirely but it wasn’t just the sex offenders. Anyone with more than 3 indictable offences, sentenced to 2 years or more on each offence could never apply. Never mind if all 3 charges happened during one arrest. The details no longer mattered.
Under the Conservative rules applicants would have also have to pay much more for a pardon, a particularly nasty measure for people struggling with employment. The filing fee at the Parole Board of Canada jumped from $50 to $150 and then again to $631. Why? Because according Vic Toews, Public Safety Minister at the time, “it is not the state’s business to be in the forgiveness business”, which is just a strange way of saying they don’t like pardons.
Clearly the Tories got it wrong on this issue, just as they did on mandatory minimums, prison populations, solitary confinement and pretty much anything else concerning crime and punishment. In fact, the incompetence is so obvious there are still pardon applications from 2011 that are stuck in limbo at the Parole Board of Canada, a problem I’ve written about before.
Fortunately we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. A recent announcement by current Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale promises a complete review of the pardon program, right down to the purely symbolic decision to change the term pardon to record suspension.
With luck we will get pardons back, people will be able to get on with their lives and we will see common sense finally return to the Parole Board of Canada.