The enactment of the Criminal Records Act [CRA] in 1970 introduced the option of applying for a pardon. A pardon allowed for criminalized persons living in Canada to have their criminal records sealed, or kept private, after displaying ‘good conduct’ and remaining ‘crime-free’ in the community. Individuals would seek pardons to reduce the stigma encountered when searching for employment, housing, or education and training opportunities. This official forgiveness process was applauded by those studying reintegration practices and policies (e.g. Ruddell & Winfree, 2006), and was proven effective through the 96% success rate reported by the Parole Board of Canada [PBC].
While the CRA had been previously amended to refine the application and investigation processes required to grant a pardon (see Wallace-Capretta, 2000), recent changes under the Harper government have made a mess of Canada’s pardon system.
- In 2010, Bill C-23A – Limiting Pardons for Serious Crimes Act – extended the required post-sentence completion wait periods for persons convicted of violent offences and child sexual offences (from 5 years to 10 years). This legislation also stipulated that no pardons shall be granted that would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. These specific changes were rushed through in response to sensationalized reactions to both Karla Homolka and Graham James.
- That same year the pardon application fee was increased from $50 to $150, but the Conservatives were still not satisfied with this and forged on with yet another increase. In February 2012, the application fee jumped from $150 to $631, despite pleas from the community to reconsider.
- As Bill C-10 – Safe Streets and Communities Act – received Royal Assent on March 12, 2012 along came more changes to the CRA. Part of this omnibus legislation was Bill C-23B, the Eliminating Pardons for Serious Crimes Act. This act replaced the word pardon with record suspension, extended the wait periods before eligibility (from 3 years to 5 years for summary offences; from 5 years to 10 years for all indictable offences), and excluded certain individuals – primarily individuals convicted of having engaged in sexual harm – from applying altogether.
The Harper government has defended all of these changes by stating that limiting pardons increases “public safety” and “protects victims, completely ignoring the prior success of Canada’s pardon program – along with both public safety and the needs of survivors.
In 2012, a backlog of 22,500 pardon files was reported, indicating that the new (and more costly) record suspension files are being prioritized by the PBC. While this backlog has since been reduced to approximately 10,000 files, almost 7,000 pardon applicants will remain in limbo as the PBC has decided to stop processing files that include indictable offences. This means that some individuals have now been waiting upwards of four years to hear a decision on their pardon application and will continue to wait until further notice.
Apart from the changes to the pardon program, other decisions have been made under the Harper government that impinge upon the ability of the criminalized to move on with their lives, and ultimately undermine efforts at keeping our communities safe.
Cuts to institutional and community-based reintegration programs – such as Lifeline and Circles of Support and Accountability – reduce the supports available to prisoners upon release. Typically, individuals who access such programs do so because of a lack of personal relationships and resources and without sufficient supports they are more likely to find themselves back in the penal system.
The 2013-14 Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator pointed out that “in the past five years, parole grant rates have declined by 20%” – indicating that individuals are spending longer periods of time behind bars without adequate supports for reintegration. Others have agreed that the current (degraded) state of the parole system does not contribute to public safety, and that the reduction of gradual, supported release and escorted temporary absences will contribute to unsuccessful re-entry.
The destruction of the pardon program by the Harper government, combined with an unrelenting punishment agenda, indicates a complete disregard for safe and successful reintegration. Individuals who have served their sentences continue to be punished through ongoing and unwarranted stigmatization and discrimination. Some have started to speak out against these dis-integration measures, and the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (along with other individuals and community organizations) will continue to support individuals in having their frustrations heard.
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