Welcome to my Crime and Justice blog! I am a 19 year old criminal justice student at the University of Winnipeg. I advocate for prisoners' rights, human rights, equality and criminal justice/prison system reforms.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Graham James Pardon Part 1

Hanging over the official pardon granted to the convicted sexual abuser Graham James is the question of whether existing provisions protect children. Until this weekend, the Canadian government accepted that they did. Despite the pardon, this former elite-level hockey coach would still have his name flagged on the Canadian Police Information Centre database by a prospective employer if he applied to work at a summer camp, a hockey school, Big Brothers or anywhere else children or the vulnerable are involved.
The shock and horror expressed by the Conservative government seem more about telling Canadians it is not our fault than about substance. It is not clear that the protection of children is at stake and, if it is, why has the government waited until now to take notice? No doubt Mr. James committed despicable crimes and a terrible breach of trust, but is his case a good reason to remake public policy?
Since pardons are designed to help ex-convicts reintegrate into productive society, Ottawa should avoid the temptation to rewrite the Criminal Records Act because of one lone controversy. There have been 234,000 pardons issued since 1970, and fewer than 3 per cent have been rescinded – though even a suspicion or allegation of wrongdoing is grounds for doing so. More than three million Canadians have a criminal record; integration is important for society.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews let it be known yesterday that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was so troubled that he interrupted his Good Friday to phone Mr. Toews and express his concern. The government has put forward a blizzard of criminal-justice legislation since the Conservative Party took office under Mr. Harper in 2006. How is it they never uttered a peep about pardons for sex offenders?
Then the news broke that Mr. James, not just any pedophile, was quietly pardoned three years ago, along with nearly 15,000 other people. One of his two confirmed victims is junior player Sheldon Kennedy, who went on to play in the National Hockey League. Former NHL star Theoren Fleury has publicly accused his former coach of having abused him, too. By Easter Monday, Mr. Toews was popping up to promise a revamped law.
Mr. James was sentenced to 31/2 years, a reflection that his crimes, while serious, were nowhere near the worst of the worst. There is no suggestion he received inappropriate or favourable treatment from parole authorities. The board had the duty to investigate whether he was “of good conduct” and whether he had committed any more crimes since his release. Ex-convicts who wish to maintain their pardons need to keep the peace, a useful incentive for doing so.
Having served his time, Mr. James is entitled to use the rules at his disposal to get on with his life. Offenders are allowed under the Criminal Records Act to seek a pardon five years after their sentences are done (those on life sentences, such as murderers, are not permitted to apply, even when paroled). Many sex offenders who are released from prison cannot apply for long periods, because they are on community supervision orders for up to 10 years. The benefit of a pardon is that it puts an individual's criminal record out of reach of most of those who might seek it. Once pardoned, ex-convicts do not have to say when applying for a job or an apartment that they have a criminal record. Still, there is an exception for those who abuse children. Their record is flagged when agencies involved with children ask for it.
Should sex offenders be singled out further? Mr. Toews said he wants pardons to be more difficult to obtain for some types of crimes than others, given that “certain types of criminals cannot be rehabilitated.” Maybe so. If he can show that the system of pardons is putting children at risk from sex offenders or others, he should strengthen that system. But surely the government knew that sex offenders are already being treated as a separate class of ex-convicts, and are being given pardons. The government's expressions of horror and disgust are a touch melodramatic. The Graham James case should not be such a surprise.

Q Who is eligible for a pardon? What is the process?
A Most offenders are eligible for a pardon, save for those convicted of murder or who are branded "dangerous." An offender has to wait three or five years before applying for a pardon, depending on whether they were convicted of a summary or indictable offence respectively. The application process, however, "is the same for everybody that applies," said Brian Bender, senior manager at the clemency and pardons division of the National Parole Board (NPB). "There are steps that all applicants must take, sex offender or not." The first step is to have fingerprints taken by local police. Once the RCMP receives the Fingerprint Form, it will send the offender a copy of their criminal record. Next, the offender must obtain local police records for their current address, and for any other address they have had for more than six months over the past five years. Those forms, plus a separate two-page Pardon Application Form and a $50 fee, are then sent to the NPB. Some applicants choose to hire a non-profit organization to help with the process, at a cost of upwards of $500.
Q How does the NPB decide whether an offender should be pardoned?
A "The Criminal Records Act does not differentiate pardon applicants by the type of offence they have committed," Caroline Douglas, spokeswoman for the board, said in a statement released yesterday. "National Parole Board members have very little discretion in the granting or refusal of a pardon to an individual, as eligibility is strictly prescribed through the [Criminal Records Act]." Indeed, the key to a pardon is "good conduct," which the Criminal Records Act defines as "behaviour that is consistent with and demonstrates a law-abiding lifestyle." While decisions are usually made by one board member, Graham James' case would have been reviewed by two board members because it involves a sexual offence.
Q Can a pardon be revoked? On what grounds?
A "A pardon is not a right, it's a privilege," Mr. Bender said. "If someone wants to keep their pardon, they need to maintain good conduct." A pardon can be revoked if there is evidence of further criminal activity, or if the board discovers that the person "lied or concealed relevant information at the time of the application," the board's policy manual says. Of the more than 234,000 pardons granted between 1970 and 1998, 525 were revoked, according to a 2000 report by the solicitor-general entitled "Pardoned Sex Offenders in Canada: What Do We Know?" Of those 525 revoked pardons, 32 involved pardoned sexual offenders -- "although most of the sex offenders did not re-offend sexually," the report said. The report also estimated that sexual offenders made up 2.1% -- or 4,883 -- of the 234,000 pardons over the 18-year period.
Q What does a pardon mean, exactly? What are the benefits?
A "A pardon is not meant to erase or excuse a criminal act," the board said in yesterday's statement. Instead, the board's policy manual says that "a pardon is evidence that the conviction should no longer reflect negatively on a person's character." While a pardon does not erase evidence of a person's criminal conviction, it means that the record is kept separately from other criminal records, and -- for non-sex offenders -- does not show up on checks of the Canadian Police Information Centre. This puts the offender in better stead when applying for a job, an apartment rental and education opportunities. "Pardons encourage commitments to lead law-abiding lives, help people secure jobs and reduce reliance on social programs," says the board's latest planning report. In most cases, a pardon also allows for foreign travel, including to the United States.
Q Do sexual offenders receive the full benefits of a pardon?
A No. The criminal records of pardoned sexual offenders are "flagged in the Canadian Police Information Centre, allowing for these records to be disclosed in screening individuals for positions of trust with children and other vulnerable persons," the board said in its statement. Also, if a person's name is listed on Canada's National Sex Offender Registry, created in 2004, then it remains there. "Even if a sex offender is pardoned, they stay on the sex offender registry," Mr. Bender said.
Q What is the pardon landscape in Canada? Are they common?
A Since 1970, more than 400,000 Canadians have received pardons. Of those, 4% have seen their pardons revoked, "indicating that the vast majority of pardon recipients remain crime-free in the community," the board's website says. In 2006-2007 -- the year Graham James was pardoned -- the board issued 7,672 pardons to people convicted of summary offences and granted another 7,076 to applicants with more serious convictions. In that same period, the board denied only 103 applications. The latest data, for 2008-2009, show that the board granted a whopping
9,628 pardons.
Graham James was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in federal prison in 1997 after he pleaded guilty to assaulting former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy and another unnamed player about 350 times over 10 years. 

I feel that the government and the public are in an uproar for absolutely nothing!! This man has the right to move on with his life. A criminal record limits career opportunities severely. James has not re-offended since being released from prison, so why is there an uproar? Pardons give individuals incentives to keep the peace and display good behaviour and they can be revoked if they re-offend. A record attaches a deviant label to the individual and stigmatizes them. If James has not been involved in criminal activity, it should no longer reflect negatively on his character. A pardon does not mean that the record is erased, only that it is kept separate. By issuing a pardon, it helps people secure jobs easier and leads to a law abiding lifestyle. 96% of people who received pardons in Canada, remain crime free in the community and have not been revoked. Therefore, I don't see a problem with pardons in general. They are designed to help ex-convicts reintegrate back into society and live a normal life, which is important. James has served his time and should not be further punished.

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