The Conservative government, with the collaboration of opposition parties, hastily passed a piece of legislation (Bill C-23A) last year which makes it more difficult for offenders to obtain a pardon for their offences. This was the government’s response to the news that notorious child-molester Graham James had received a pardon, and that Karla Homolka would soon be eligible to apply.
In its efforts to deal quickly with a perceived gap in the law, the Harper government has again passed legislation which will adversely affect thousands of offenders needlessly. From introduction to royal assent, the new procedure for obtaining pardons became law in 49 days.
The new law sets out longer eligibility dates for offenders, and makes it much harder to convince the National Parole Board that a pardon should be granted. As a consequence, it will now take much longer to process each application. The government thus needs to increase the NPB’s budget. It proposes to recover the costs by charging a higher fee for applications.
The Harper government is about to raise the cost of obtaining a pardon to $631 from $150. Yet when the fee was raised from $50 to $150 last year, one person who helps offenders obtain pardons said it was “earth-shattering for hundreds of our clients.” Quadrupling the new fee will ensure that very few offenders can afford to apply.
For most offenders, obtaining a pardon is absolutely essential in order to obtain housing and employment. These are necessary components for the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders when they have served their sentences. Even Public Safety Minister Vic Toews agrees: “I certainly believe in the concept of pardons, they’re an absolutely essential part of the rehabilitation of individuals.”
Mr. Toews engaged the public in a short consultation process about raising the fees, as he is required to do under the federal User Fees Act. Of the 1,086 individuals and organizations that responded, only 12 were in favour of raising the fee. 98% said the proposal was “appalling”, “outrageous”, “preposterous”, “downright criminal”, and a “cash grab.” They said that the new fee would affect disproportionately the poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized. Nonetheless, the government is forging ahead.
4.2 million Canadians have criminal records. Most people who apply for pardons do so in order to get a job. Offenders who have no job, or have a low-paying job, will not be able to afford the application process, and so they will not be able to improve their circumstances. This is Catch-22 writ large.
The government says that $631 is what it costs to process a pardon application. The government has not made public the report that contains the cost breakdown or the rationale for the new fee. The government also takes the position that offenders should pay for their own applications, and not the taxpayer. Yet the government knows pardons are an essential component of rehabilitation. Leaving aside the humanitarian aspects, the government must know that people will not be able to contribute to the economic productivity of the nation if they are saddled with criminal records.
Bill C-23 is a mean-spirited law. It will keep thousands of former offenders from obtaining pardons, a process which used to be straightforward, affordable and sensible. Lest the reader think that pardons are being granted to violent, repeat offenders, it is important to point out that 38.6% of pardons granted in the last 10 years went to victimless offenders: impaired driving, driving over 80, drug offences and failing to appear in court. About 50% went to property offences: theft, break and enter and theft, theft under $1,000 and mischief. Only 12% went to offenders who were convicted of assault.
In the past 10 years, 247,438 people obtained pardons. Now all applicants will have to go through a longer and more expensive process, with less likelihood of success. Many of them will not even be able to start the process. Was all this necessary in order to keep Karla Homolka from obtaining a pardon?
Paula Mallea, B.A., M.A., Ll.B, practised criminal law for 15 years in Toronto, Kingston, and Manitoba. She acted mainly as defence counsel, with a part-time stint as prosecutor, and spent hundreds of hours in penitentiaries representing inmates. She is a Research Associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She is the author of The Fear Factor: Stephen Harper’s Tough On Crime Agenda and Lorimer Publishing will be releasing her book on the tough-on-crime agenda this fall.