MPs told restricting pardons will make society less safe
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, November 22, 2010 8:09PM EST
OTTAWA - Conservative MPs heaped praise Monday on three ex-convicts who've cleaned up their lives, without seeming to grasp they're exactly the types of serious, repeat offenders targeted by the government's latest tough-on-crime legislation.
Representatives from three Manitoba groups were appearing before the Public Safety committee to testify about proposed changes that will make it far more difficult to get a criminal pardon.
Chris Courchene, Barrett Fraser and Mumtaz Muhammed all shared personal stories of getting out of prison and striving to re-enter society as productive and law-abiding citizens.
"When do I or 400,000 other people stop being ex-offenders and start becoming citizens?" asked Fraser, who is a radio manager in Winnipeg.
"You're removing a tremendous piece of motivation to people like me."
While government MPs appeared skeptical of the testimony that tighter parole rules will actually make society less safe by reducing incentives to good behaviour, they gave unanimous praise to the moving personal stories of the former convicts.
"Your families should be proud because it's a great story," noted Tory MP Ben Lobb, who added he hopes they'll mentor other ex-cons.
Proposed legislation would extend the waiting period to apply for a serious criminal record suspension to 10 years from five, while also making anyone guilty of more than three serious offences ineligible to ever apply.
The issue burst into the public consciousness last spring when The Canadian Press revealed that convicted sex offender Graham James had been pardoned in 2007. James has since been charged with nine additional sex offences against former teenaged hockey players for which he is awaiting trial in Winnipeg.
"We need to clearly focus on the type of people -- and they are the repeat offenders, they're the most heinous people -- that we're trying to focus this legislation on," Conservative MP Phil McColeman told the committee.
That prompted witness John Hutton, the executive director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba, to interject.
"I'm sorry, these are the people you're talking about!" said Hutton, extending his arms to encompass the other witnesses at the table.
Fraser had already told the committee he had more than 25 indictable convictions on his record. Courchene testified he'd been in and out of jail ever since his alcoholic mother, a victim of the residential schools system, introduced him to a street gang at age 11. Muhammed has multiple convictions, including robbery.
All have been crime-free for several years.
"I don't consider any of you in that most heinous category, as depicted," McColeman responded. "That was a misrepresentation."
But the fact remains the witnesses will be stripped of any chance of ever receiving a criminal record suspension under the proposed legislation.
The James case -- and the possibility that notorious sex killer Karla Homolka could potentially apply -- prompted partial measures last June that increased the waiting period for certain offences and gave the Parole Board more discretion in granting a pardon.
Parliament is now studying the other half of the legislation, which would increase waiting periods on lesser offences to five years from three while making all convicts of a single indictable offence wait 10 years to apply.
It would also bar most people convicted of sexual offences against minors and those guilty of more than three serious offences from receiving a record suspension.
"I feel that the proposed legislation paints everyone with the same brush," said Courchene, a father of two who is training to become a carpenter.
He said he won't return to a life of crime regardless of whether he's pardoned, but would like to improve his job prospects.
"If I can't get a pardon, I'll sweep floors for the rest of my life. I'll sweep this floor if I have to," said Courchene, motioning to the committee room parquet.
"You wouldn't be able to (without a pardon)," Liberal MP Alexandre Mendes dryly responded, an apparent reference to public sector hiring rules.
Conservative MP Rick Norlock, a former policeman, told the committee he's picked up a "general perception" in coffee shops about attitudes to crime and criminals.
"Canadians feel a certain way and I guess governments respond to the feelings and to the aspirations of the average person in society," said Norlock.
Kenton Eidse, a consultant with Opportunities for Employment in Winnipeg, responded that "everybody is in favour of strengthening public safety."
"The mandate of this committee is to look at the evidence, to look at the facts, and to make a decision based on the facts no matter what the public mood is."
But it was Fraser who probably best summed up the current victim's rights, tough-on-crime attitude on Parliament Hill.
A victim of several burglaries himself, Fraser said he doesn't personally forgive the burglars.
"It's personal, it's malice, it's petty, it's spiteful, yes. They broke into my home, they took my stuff, they violated my property," he said.
"I'm entitled to feel angry and I'm entitled to hold a grudge against them. But I'm not entitled to turn around and prevent that person to become better."