Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Graham James Part 2
OTTAWA–Outcry over the quiet redemption of a hockey coach who sexually preyed on his teenaged players has prompted the federal government to make it harder for some convicted criminals to be pardoned.
"I think there is a distinction to be made between a break and enter ... and a rape," Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Monday about the criteria the National Parole Board considers when deciding whether to grant a pardon.
"Certain types of criminals cannot be rehabilitated," he said in a later interview.
The Conservative government reacted quickly in the face of widespread indignation over the news that Graham James, a 58-year-old junior hockey coach convicted of sexually abusing two of his players – including former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy – was granted a pardon by the National Parole Board three years ago.
Opposition critics said they shared the indignation over the pardon and welcomed a review of the National Parole Board, but at the same time expressed concern the Conservatives were playing politics with a knee-jerk reaction.
"They wait for a sensational case before they take action," said Liberal public safety critic Mark Holland.
The John Howard Society also expressed concern.
Executive director Craig Jones said he worried the government would go overboard with reforms. The society helps former convicts readjust to life in the community.
"I think we ought not to be running around with our hair on fire every time an institution like the pardon system or the parole system doesn't live up to our expectations," Jones told The Canadian Press.
James was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison in 1997 after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting Kennedy and another unidentified teenage player hundreds of times over a decade.
He was pardoned Jan. 8, 2007.
James was in the news again last year when former NHL star Theoren Fleury published a memoir describing years of alleged abuse and then filed a complaint with Winnipeg police in January.
The Canadian Press said it learned of the James pardon after a previously unknown accuser – who said he was never coached by James – contacted Winnipeg police concerning his allegations of sexual abuse. It is unknown where James lives now and he has not commented publicly on the new allegations.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper apparently was one of many Canadians incensed by the pardon, as he called Toews on Good Friday to ask his minister to come up with legislative reforms to the National Parole Board that he expects to introduce by this fall.
Those changes could include making those convicted of violent or sexual crimes – especially repeat offenders – wait longer than the usual five years before they can apply for a pardon, or even denying them the right to ask for one at all.
"Pedophiles are especially difficult to rehabilitate, if ever, and given that this is the case, should pardons be granted in respect of certain types of offences?" Toews said. "Those are issues that I think need to be examined."
Currently, only those offenders serving a life or indeterminate sentence are prohibited from asking for a pardon, which effectively removes information about a criminal record from the public domain, making it easier for an offender who has served time in prison to get a job and travel.
Sex offenders still would be flagged when their name is run through a law enforcement database called the Canadian Police Information Centre if they are being screened to work with children or other vulnerable groups.
Toews said the reforms would not involve requiring ministerial approval of every decision.
He said the independent board did not act inappropriately, blaming the problem on the Criminal Records Act, which gives its members little room to deny a pardon if an offender meets the criteria.
According to the National Parole Board, the law allows offenders to apply for a pardon once they have served all sentences, and waited three to five years depending on the offence. They will generally get one if they have behaved well and avoided being convicted of anything else.
"National Parole Board members have very little discretion in the granting or refusal of a pardon to an individual," the board said Monday.
The numbers support that argument as they show there has been a rise in pardon applications in the past few years and that the vast majority of them are approved. The board issued decisions in 40,428 cases in 2008-09 and denied only 800 of them. James was one of almost 15,000 cases the year he applied and only 100 offenders were denied a pardon.
Kennedy said news of the pardon made him angry.
"I'm very hard pressed to believe that there's been change," he said Monday. "I look at the time from when Graham was charged, convicted and sentenced, and now it's written off his record. It was a matter of roughly 12 years and I see people struggling with this – not just Graham James' victims, but victims of child abuse who struggle with this – for years and years and years."
Don Davies, the NDP critic for public safety, said the James pardon was inappropriate but questioned how the federal government learned of the pardon only now, when the parole board has been required to keep a registry of its decisions for nearly 20 years. He also noted pardons can be an effective tool in the criminal justice system.
"Our prison system is called the corrections system. It's not called the punishment system and the purpose of it is we balance the stick of prison with the carrot of redemption," said Davies.
The days of sex offenders like Graham James being able to virtually wipe their records clean appear numbered as the Harper Tories took aim Monday at overhauling the country's pardon system.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said he will look at whether sex offenders and repeat violent offenders should have to wait longer than the current five years, after serving their sentences, to receive pardons for their crimes. Toews will also consider whether they should fall into a category of offenders who are excluded.
And a revamping of one of the more controversial parts of the Canadian justice system couldn't come fast enough for both Theoren Fleury, who has accused James of assaulting him, and a Winnipeg-based expert on pardons.
"The system doesn't work. We pride ourselves on being a nation where kids can walk the streets and play freely. Then we just basically throw that all out the window with this sort of thing," Fleury, the former National Hockey League player, told the Free Press.
Fleury was outraged to learn this past weekend that James, his former junior hockey coach, was pardoned in 2007 for sexual assaults against two former players. James was convicted in 1997 and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. Winnipeg police recently opened a new investigation against James after Fleury came forward -- first in a tell-all memoir and then with a formal complaint -- alleging he was also a victim. No new charges have been filed to date.
"These kinds of guys can't be rehabilitated and always reoffend," said Fleury. "(A pardon means) they're standing out there like a peacock, with their feathers all out, saying 'I can do whatever I want.'"
Pardons do not erase criminal records. However, they are kept separate from other criminal records, so that they are rendered virtually invisible.
Offenders convicted of serious crimes can apply five years after finishing their sentences, provided they have been law-abiding citizens during that time. Less-serious offenders need only wait three years.
The federal concession permits those who have paid their debt to society to travel, find jobs and qualify for housing. Human-rights laws prohibit discrimination against pardoned offenders.
Lucy Perillo, the president of Winnipeg-based Canada Border Crossing Services, said she wasn't surprised to hear James had been pardoned. But she admits the system makes it far too easy for people like him -- child predators with multiple victims -- to make a successful application. The only real test is proving you have stayed out of trouble for at least five years following your release from jail. All criminals can apply for a pardon, with the exception of anyone given a life sentence for a crime such as murder.
"The legislation, as currently written, says he qualified. But there is always room for improvement, and it would probably be wise to (make it more difficult) for people like this," said Perillo.
She has spent the past 16 years seeking pardons for her clients, usually because they are having trouble finding jobs because of their criminal past. Perillo said others want to travel out of Canada without fear of being denied. Perillo said James would likely have no trouble entering most countries and could truthfully say he has no criminal record when clearing customs or applying for employment. The one exception is the United States, where people must apply for a separate waiver that gives them similar powers to a pardon.
"There are a lot of countries in the world that wouldn't have any knowledge of his record," said Perillo.
James was one of 14,748 Canadian criminals who were given a pardon in 2007 by a panel of National Parole Board members, according to federal statistics. Only 103 people who applied were rejected. The parole board is under no obligation to publicize who they pardon or why they granted the request.
"The National Parole Board owes us an explanation -- and the Prime Minister owes us an overhaul," Roz Prober, founder of the Winnipeg-based Beyond Borders child advocacy agency, said.
"It just takes your breath away. What these kind of devious, non-repentent people want is anonymity. And that's what the parole board has given him. They've wiped the slate clean and told him off you go. We know these type of people often travel to other countries to get sexually involved with children."
Those who work with offenders say changing the law because of one rogue case is folly that will do more harm than good.
"I think we ought not be running around with our hair on fire every time an institution like the pardon system or the parole system doesn't live up to our expectations," said Craig Jones of the John Howard Society, which helps offenders readjust to society after release.
Toews signalled that overhaul is coming, saying the Conservative government will consider changes that would make it more difficult for people like James to erase their criminal past.
"I think there needs to be a little more direction given to the (National Parole) Board in terms of what they can consider overall, and that these things should not just be rubber-stamped," Toews said. "I'm actually quite concerned about certain types of sex offenders getting pardons, especially pedophiles. In my opinion and in my experience, pedophiles are not easily cured."
Toews suggested the government could decide to ban sex criminals from receiving pardons or extend the time they would have to wait before applying.
Fleury believes James is currently living in Montreal but has no idea if he's working. James previously spent time coaching hockey in Spain following his release from prison.
"This is typical of how the system works. The majority of the country knows that. Now let's see some action," said Fleury.
He wasn't surprised to hear that another former player has recently come forward and claimed he was abused by James while playing for him in 1979 in Winnipeg. The man -- who spoke to The Canadian Press but was not identified -- has not yet filed a formal complaint with police.
It is typical of governments today to shoot first and ask questions later when it comes to issues of crime and safety. The latest example of this pandering to public hysteria is the case of Graham James, the ex-hockey coach and convicted pedophile who was granted a pardon for his offences.
The Prime Minister's Office called the development "gravely disturbing," while Public Safety Minister Vic Toews wasted no time in promising to crack down on the practice of "rubber-stamping" pardons. The reaction was akin to discovering that a sex offender had been accidentally released from custody and set free in a school playground.
There is no way of knowing if Mr. James' deviant sexual interest in teenaged boys is under control, but the issuance of a pardon has not put anyone at risk. A pardon is simply an acknowledgment by the National Parole Board that a particular individual has been of good conduct for a period of five years following the completion of his sentence.
It's been described as a sort of second chance that is intended to encourage former lawbreakers to remain on the straight and narrow. The Canadian Human Rights Act also prohibits discrimination against a pardoned criminal who applies for a federal job or any job under federal administration.
A pardon does not erase a criminal record, but merely removes it from the Canadian Police Information Centre. Municipal police forces are not obliged to remove the records of pardoned criminals from their database, but they usually do.
It is not recognized by U.S. Customs and it can be revoked if the individual reoffends.
The benefits, therefore, are fairly limited, but they can help sincere individuals who want to start life anew.
In the case of Mr. James, however, his pardon was much more restrictive and far less liberating. For reasons of public safety, the names of sexual offenders are never completely sealed after they receive a pardon.
A check on the Canadian Police Information Centre computer would show he is a convicted sex offender and employers would have a right to see his record if he wanted to work with children or vulnerable people. There would be no such obligation if he were applying to work at a bank, hence the value of a pardon in cases like his.
If Mr. James is rearrested as a result of new allegations, his pardon will not help him and it would be rescinded if he was convicted.
When Mr. James was freed in 2000 after serving 3.5 years for offences that occurred in the 1980s, he was immediately banned from coaching hockey in Canada for life, which was an appropriate added penalty. Somehow, however, he secured a job as a hockey coach in Spain, even though his employers were aware of his criminal past. The pardon, therefore, did not protect his secrets.
Mr. Toews says he wants to end the practice of automatically approving the issuing of pardons on demand. The fact is, however, that pardons are only granted to those who have earned them by living clean lives. Incorrigible criminals or those who remain on police radar are not granted pardons. Nor are murderers or certain other offenders.
Mr. Toews is entitled to seek information about pardons, but he should get answers before jumping to the conclusion that criminals are hiding under every bed.