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.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Nobody should be excluded from accessing a pardon!

Graham James sexually assaulted two teenage boys hundreds of times during 10 years of abuse. They were hockey players, he was their coach. He had control over them.
What he did, by any measure other than a strict legal definition, is unpardonable. He destroyed the early lives of at least two young men and left them damaged for all time.
But under the current strict, legal definition in Canada, James was almost certain to be granted a pardon once he applied.
The Parole Board of Canada considers pardon requests under rules laid out in the Criminal Records Act. James, who was convicted of a serious crime, was eligible five years after serving his sentence. As long as he hadn't broken the law or behaved badly after being released, the Parole Board had no grounds to deny his application. Murderers and anyone identified as a dangerous offender can't be pardoned, but in all other cases the type of crime an applicant committed can't be taken into account. On average, 98% of pardon requests are granted.
A pedophile like James who preyed on multiple victims for a decade is considered no different than someone who once held up a corner store and was never in trouble again.
That is wrong, and the outrage that erupted over the weekend when the details of James's pardon -issued three years ago - became public is justified.
So, too, are calls for the federal government to give Parole Board officials more latitude to deny pardons.
That's not to say, however, that the current law gives convicted sex offenders a completely free pass, or that a mass move away from pardoning criminals is needed.
In most cases, a pardon means a specific criminal conviction no longer appears on the Canadian Police Information Centre's computer database. That means it won't show up as part of a standard criminal records check.
However, sexual assault convictions are "flagged" by the CPIC system despite a pardon. Someone who applied for a job working with children would generate a flag and be asked about his or her record.
But the notion of "pardoning" the kind of terrible acts James committed goes deeper than just a record on a computer. Pedophiles do enormous damage to their victims and are notoriously unlikely to change their ways.

James has never shown public remorse, and actually went back into coaching in Spain after he was released from prison. As well, a third former player, Theo Fleury, recently filed a complaint with Winnipeg police claiming James sexually assaulted him.
Should Fleury's complaint result in charges and a conviction, James's pardon would be revoked.
But it should never come to that. Parole Board officials should have more leeway to deny pardons, and James should lose his.

This article is sooo biased to one side, it's not even funny. They don't even mention the stats about the pardon system, that the majority of people granted, are successful. Tisk tisk.... You need to do some more research!
I completely disagree with this article's argument. Everyone deserves a second chance and an opportunity to be pardoned. A criminal record carries a deviant label and stigma and limits job opportunities and chances, which will only increase the probability of re-offending.  

What is troubling about this week's news concerning convicted sex abuser Graham James is not just that he was given a pardon for his crimes. It is also that we didn't find out about the pardon until three years later, and only then by accident – after a previously unknown accuser contacted the Winnipeg police with new allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of James.
The justice system should, of course, include the pardon option. An 18-year-old convicted for a shoplifting offence should not have to wear that record like a scarlet letter for the rest of his or her life, whether seeking employment or travelling abroad.
Even in the case of more serious crimes, such as James's sexual assault conviction, the perpetrators should have access to pardons, provided they have demonstrated that they are back on the straight path.
But they should not be granted automatically, as they apparently are now, once a period of time has passed and a police check confirms there have been no subsequent offences. The request is made in writing, and the National Parole Board rubber-stamps it. Only a tiny percentage are turned down. A spokesperson for the board says its members "have very little discretion in the granting or refusal of a pardon to an individual as eligibility is strictly prescribed" in law.
Nor does the law differentiate between minor offences and major crimes, except to say that the wait period for the former is three years and for the latter five years after completion of sentence. Otherwise, the application process is the same for both – largely a paper transaction handled by officials behind closed doors. Unlike sentencing or parole hearings, there is no opportunity for, say, the victims to express their views on whether a person should be pardoned.
For serious crimes, this seems wrong. Imagine, for example, if school girl killer Karla Homolka got a pardon this way and it was only discovered a few years after the fact.
Homolka has, indeed, expressed the hope that she will one day be pardoned, according to a psychiatric evaluation. "She has been thinking about possible careers she might pursue and she hopes ultimately to earn a pardon," wrote the examining psychiatrist. Homolka becomes eligible for a pardon this year, five years after her plea-bargained, 12-year sentence for manslaughter was served.
To be sure, there are voices urging us not to rush to curtail pardons on the basis of the James case. "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," says Craig Jones of the John Howard Society.
He's right. Reforms to the pardon system ought not to be implemented in haste or without careful thought, by both the government and Parliament.
But nor should we ignore the issues raised by the James case, especially given that pardons are becoming more frequent, rising from about 15,000 to 40,000 a year in recent times. As Public Safety Minister Vic Toews weighs the options, he should err on side of more transparency for pardons of serious crimes.

Having spent the last four years being amazed and appalled by Stephen Harper's style of governance -- cynical, ruthless, controlling, unprincipled, and proudly ignorant of basic facts -- I thought I had seen the worst. But then the news of Graham James's pardon broke.
In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Stephen Harper was so angry after hearing of the pardon that he called Toews on Good Friday and ordered him to lower the legislative boom. In another government, that might be information Toews himself decided to give to reporters. But this is the Harper government. Ministers do not breath without permission. And so it's safe to conclude that the prime minister's office not only wants Canadians to know it's getting "tough" on pardons, it also wants us to know it's getting tough because the prime minister heard about James's pardon and got angry.
Whether the pardon system is broken or not, whether new legislation is needed or not, this is an atrocious way to run a country. More consideration goes into the average letter to the editor. If Stephen Harper and his cabinet had a clue about good governance, they would hang their heads in shame, but they are clueless and shameless -- and bragging to anyone who will listen.
Let's start with something no one is talking about. How did Graham James's pardon become public information years after it was granted?
The Canadian Press story that broke the news refers, vaguely, to the pardon being revealed after a new accuser came forward in Winnipeg. But it's not legal for police, prosecutors, or other officials to reveal pardon information. Only if the minister personally approves the release of such information, and only if he does so in accordance with the criteria in law, is it legal.
Did a police officer or prosecutor illegally leak the information? Another official? Or was it the minister or someone in his office? The leak seems to have included the name of the parole board official who granted the pardon, which indicates the leaker had the sort of detailed information available only to someone with significant access.
One might think this would concern Stephen Harper, who has dealt harshly with illegal leaks in the past. But it seems not. The CP story quotes his spokesperson saying James's lawfully granted pardon is "deeply troubling and gravely disturbing," but the spokesperson apparently expressed no concern that the law may have been broken. That's a little odd. And suspicious. Remember, the prime minister's office is legally forbidden from confirming that the pardon had been granted, but the tone of the story suggests the prime minister's spokesperson may have done just that.
So will Stephen Harper call on the RCMP to investigate? Oh no. He only does that with leaks that don't advance his political agenda. (I asked Public Safety to clarify, but, true to form, they did not return my call.)
As for the substance of the matter, I am agnostic. Maybe reforms are needed. I don't know. I do know that pardons are revoked if those who receive them are subsequently convicted of another crime, and I know that 96 per cent of the more than 400,000 pardons issued over the last 40 years have not been revoked. This suggests the program is working just fine. But it's a complicated issue. I'd want to know a lot more before I decide whether changes are needed or not, and I'd like to hear a lot more about whatever changes might be proposed. I don't see how I could make a rational decision otherwise.
And I'm only a journalist whose decisions don't matter all that much. Stephen Harper is the prime minister. His decisions count. A thoughtful and responsible person in his position might well get angry after hearing about a particular pardon, but he certainly wouldn't run to the nearest phone and start barking orders. He would ask his officials to prepare a briefing that explained the rationale for pardons, detailed the essential facts, and outlined any controversies or proposed reforms. If he were an especially serious leader, he would ask officials to conduct an intense and thorough investigation of the issue, to talk with stakeholders and to bring their research together in one concise and informed paper. He might even ask an arms-length agency to do this work, to get a truly impartial perspective.
The government used to have an agency whose purpose was to do just that sort of thing. It was the Law Commission of Canada. Stephen Harper closed it shortly after taking power.
Making decisions on nothing more than impulse and politics, Harper and his ministers are often badly informed. Toews illustrated the point perfectly when he claimed that "certain types of criminals cannot be rehabilitated." Presumably, Toews meant sex offenders. And that's just wrong. Among the many studies on the subject is one by the United States Department of Justice which tracked almost 10,000 sex offenders -- including 4,300 men convicted of molesting children -- released from American prisons in 1994. "Sex offenders were less likely than non-sex offenders to be rearrested for any offence," the study concluded, and only 5.3 per cent of sex offenders were arrested for a sex crime.
And bear in mind those offenders were released under appalling conditions. Forbidden from living here or there. Forbidden from a long list of jobs. On-line registries making their names, faces and crimes known to one and all. Such an amazing array of restrictions have been heaped upon American sex offenders over the years, ex-cons who want to stay on the straight and narrow find the system doesn't help them do that: It actually pushes them off.
It is no accident one in four prisoners on the planet is American. An entire generation of politicians chose to ignore research, leap to their feet after every sensational headline, and play to people's worst instincts. American justice became brutal, wildly expensive, and utterly dysfunctional. Subject this country's justice system to a couple of decades of Stephen Harper's style of governance and it will be no different.

I completely agree with this article! The government is completely ignoring research and stats. Sex offenders can be rehabilitated and only a small percentage of them, re-offend. The public and the media, are misinformed. 

I was disappointed but not at all surprised to read some of the comments made by Public Safety Minister Vic Toes. The disappointment I felt was the result of the misinformation and blatant untruth which continues to be expounded. One comment in particular struck a chord and it was that "certain types of criminals cannot be rehabilitated".

Much of the concern over sex offenders stems from the perception that if they have committed one sex offense, they are almost certain to commit more. This is the reason given for why sex offenders (instead of, say, murderers, armed robbers, drug dealers or those who have physically harmed a child) should be monitored and separated from the public once released from prison.

The high recidivism rate among sex offenders is repeated so often that it is usually accepted as truth, but in fact recent studies show that the recidivism rates for sex offenses is quite low. According to a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study ("Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994"), just five percent of sex offenders followed for three years after their release from prison in 1994 were arrested for another sex crime. Five percent is hardly a high repeat offender rate.

And contrary to public misconception, contrary to what's driving most of the current legislation, as a group, sex offenders actually have a lower rate or recidivism (25 percent lower) than people who commit other crimes of serious criminal acts and that's quite different from what most people tend to presume.

Dr. Fred Berlin, head of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic in Baltimore, published a large study - now I'm talking about men in treatment - of over 600 individuals who, in the past, committed significant sexual offenses. It was a relatively short-term follow up of a little bit over five years, but during that five year period better than 90 percent of the of men who were in treatment were not accused of a subsequent sexual offense.  

Dr. Berlin: "Now, we may have missed a few things, but that's a far cry again from the common public misperception that most of these men would quickly get back into trouble. That simply wasn't the case. I believe that many of these individuals who did succeed did so because they could get a fresh start, they were accepted in their communities, they could work, they weren't feeling stigmatized. And to the extent that some of these new laws are going to interfere with them being able to do that, inadvertently they can actually be counterproductive, making the situation for society, in some cases, perhaps even worse rather than better".

The issue is not whether children need to be protected; of course they do. The issues are whether the danger to them is great, and whether the measures proposed will ensure their safety. While the abduction, rape, and killing of children by strangers is very, very rare, such incidents receive a lot of media coverage, leading the public to overestimate how common these cases are. Most sexually abused children are not victims of convicted sex offenders nor Internet pornographers, and most sex offenders do not re-offend once released. This information is rarely mentioned by journalists more interested in sounding alarms than objective analysis. 

One tragic result of these myths is that the panic over sex offenders distracts the public from a far greater threat to children: parental abuse and neglect. The vast majority of crimes against children are committed not by released sex offenders, but instead by the victim's own family and family friends. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, "based on what we know about those who harm children, the danger to children is greater from someone they or their family knows than from a stranger." If lawmakers and the public are serious about wanting to protect children, they should not be misled by "stranger danger" myths and instead focus on the much larger threat inside the home.

If changes must to be made to the Criminal records Act than let those changes be based on objective analysis. Excluding sex offenders from access to a pardon is not justifiable since we know that more than 80% of sex offenders who have undergone treatment do not reoffend, according to preliminary results of a 15-year prospective study of 626 individuals reported at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. Excluding access to a pardon then would likely arise from a desire for vengeance rather than a desire to protect society.

The truth may not be as sensational (i.e. ‘newsworthy’) as some of the statements made by a few ignorant and opportunistic bureaucrats, but I hope you will agree with me that it is a story which nevertheless must be told. 

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