Conservatives move to toughen pardon system
Published Tuesday, May 11, 2010 8:13PM EDT
The federal government on Tuesday announced plans for an overhaul of the pardon system that will remove the word "pardon" altogether, in favour of the term "record suspensions."
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced the changes from Ottawa, saying his government is pushing ahead with the legislation in order to put the rights of victims ahead of the rights of criminals.
"Our paramount concern as a government is public safety and the rights of victims," Toews told CTV's Power Play Tuesday evening. "We are concerned about the rehabilitation of criminals, but the danger that certain criminals pose should always be on our mind. And that's why we have extended the categories of prisoners and convicted people who cannot apply for pardons."
The legislation to replace the current pardon system includes the following reforms:
- The elimination of pardons, to be replaced by more restrictive and narrowly worded "record suspensions"
- Those convicted of sexual offences against minors will be permanently ineligible for a record suspension
- Those convicted of three or more indictable offences – the more serious offences such as aggravated assaults -- will also be permanently ineligible for a record suspension
- The periods of ineligibility for record suspension after a sentence has been served will be increased. For summary conviction offences, it will be a five-year wait, while more serious offences – indictable offences – the wait will be 10 years
- The onus will be moved to the applicant to show that a record suspension will help sustain his or her rehabilitation
Toews defended the name change from "pardon" to "record suspension," which he says more accurately reflects what is granted in a pardon.
"A pardon isn't an absolute forgiveness or getting of the record. It's in fact suspended, and that record could come back at any time if you re-involve yourself with the law," Toews said.
"So what we wanted to do is to simply describe accurately what in fact is being granted to individuals when they receive this so-called pardon. It's in fact a suspension of the record."
The rule changes follow a public outcry after The Canadian Press revealed that the National Parole Board granted a pardon to convicted sex offender Graham James, a former junior hockey coach, back in 2007.
James had been convicted of sexual assault against two teen hockey players, including Sheldon Kennedy, who went on to play in the National Hockey League.
Kennedy stood beside Toews as Tuesday's announcement was made, and said he was pleased with the proposed legislation.
"I think it protects those vulnerable sectors, I think that it protects citizens," Kennedy told Power Play. "I think we have the right to know people's backgrounds, and I think that's what it gives us."
The current pardon system does not erase a person's criminal record, but a pardon can make it easier for someone to get a job and travel abroad. All but a small segment of criminals, such as dangerous offenders and those serving life sentences, are eligible to apply for a pardon.
As the system currently stands, criminals must wait between three to five years after a sentence has been served, depending on the severity of the crime.
In the case of sex offenders, a flag remains on the pardoned person's file, serving as an alert to community groups and employers should they seek work with children or other vulnerable people.
Craig Jones of the John Howard Society said a review of the pardon and parole system may be needed, but that should take place under the guidance of experts, not by "short-term-oriented, hair-on-fire opportunists."
Liberal MP Mark Holland agreed.
"What they should be doing in advance of just throwing legislation down on the table is they should have four years ago allowed Parliament to review the issue and ask them to study it and ask experts to come in and make an evidence-based decision," Holland said.
Ahead of the announcement, criminal lawyer and former Ontario prosecutor David Butt said he thought the pardon system needed more of a "tweak" than an overhaul, and also wondered if the changes were being made hastily.
"Clearly, they're reacting to a big news story, and reactive policymaking in the criminal justice area is always potentially problematic," Butts said. "So we'll have to look very carefully at the response to see if it meets with more measured criteria for what should be done for this small but important issue."
Butt said that although the National Parole Board does approve most applications for pardons, the system is a good one.
"What you have to realize is that most of the people who are granted pardons are those who, at a young age, committed a relatively minor offence, whether it be shoplifting at 19, possession of a couple of joints of marijuana," he said.
"Those are the kinds of criminal records that I think everyone would agree, it's good to allow that person to move on with their life without being held back by a criminal record."
"So, sure, it's a large percentage, but it reflects the large percentage of people who move through the justice system, encounter it only once, and then move on with their lives."
Ron Jette of the Child Abuse Prevention Network agreed. He said the pardon system is necessary for making sure young people "who stepped over the line when they were kids," don't pay for their mistakes for the rest of their lives.
While Jette praised the legislation, saying that granting a child molester a pardon "would be a slap in the face to a victim," he said the law does not quite go far enough.
"I probably would have included a section where like in parole, if a pardon is being applied for, that the victims be notified and have a chance to have a standing in the process," Jette said, "where they can make a comment either live or, in cases where they don't want to, at least a written submission."