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.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Pardon of Graham James

OTTAWA – The government’s own “best practice” guide for screening volunteers makes no mention of a critical step to identify pardoned sex offenders such as Graham James.
The oversight highlights the current confusion in the system for doing criminal background checks, and serves as a pointed reminder to organizations gearing up for the summer volunteer season to ensure they follow a rigorous screening protocol.
Under existing legislation that has been strictly enforced since last December, only the individual being screened can request a “vulnerable sector” search that would reveal a pardoned sex offence.
Yet Public Safety Canada’s own “best practice guidelines for screening volunteers” does not explain vulnerable sector searches in detail, nor make clear that they must be initiated by the individual being screened.
A Public Safety spokesman said in an emailed statement that it’s “implicitly understood that a vulnerable sector search is automatically part of the process.”
The guide acknowledges that although a person may have received a pardon, the public safety minister may unseal the record to help screen those who would work with children and other vulnerable people.
But it doesn’t spell out the fact that the volunteer must personally initiate the search and then submit fingerprints before the details of a pardoned offence can be released to the individual.
There were 887 pardons granted to sex offenders in 2009-10 and 667 the year before, according to the National Parole Board. The RCMP reports it has files for 14,584 pardoned sex offenders in its national database.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is planning legislative changes that would make it more difficult for people convicted of sex offences to obtain pardons.
While Toews’ office says it’s a good idea to request “full criminal record checks” on prospective employees and volunteers, there’s no indication he will do anything to make it easier for organizations and companies to identify pardoned sex offenders.
Professional background screeners are crying foul since the RCMP tightened up privacy provisions to restrict soccer leagues, churches and others from asking directly whether a pardoned sex offence exists in police databases.
Liberal public safety critic Mark Holland says the restrictions are unacceptable.
“It’s deeply concerning. The fact is right now it is nearly impossible for organizations to get access to information on whether or not somebody has a history as a sex offender,” Holland said in interview.
“Now, somebody like Mr. James is in a position where he could be placed in an authority position over youth. That’s clearly unacceptable.”
The RCMP says it’s merely respecting privacy provisions set out in the law.
“A criminal records check won’t reveal the existence of a conviction for which a pardon’s been granted,” said Supt. Chuck Walker. “That’s the whole idea.”
In any event, a typical police records check – even a vulnerable sector check – is not a panacea for volunteer groups who want assurances a new recruit has had no trouble with the law, Walker says.
A thorough check involves looking in local police indices as well as the national criminal records system, he said.
“Let’s say there was no flag, and yet there are 10 incidences of police contact in the local police records database where this individual has been identified as somebody who prowls parks, they’ve had things said about them, there’s been accusations made that – either because there was an unco-operative witness, or they couldn’t amass enough evidence to lay a charge – it never made it out of local police indices. It was never a matter before the courts.”
Walker argues such local police checks should be a routine part of screening.
“It’s not legislated. My view is that it probably should be, because the vulnerable sector – or the pardoned sex offender registry query – is one-third of the entire puzzle. It’s not a complete picture.”
Lawyer and author Michael Carabash says the disparate criminal records system is a disjointed mass of confusing data.
“The criminal records system needs a complete overhaul. How can people expect to know anything about criminal records if it’s unclear to me, a lawyer who has researched the damn thing for months?”
Simpler record-check procedures would be welcome because the current time-consuming process can be a bothersome headache for potential volunteers, said Don Lapierre of umbrella group Volunteer Canada.
Lapierre would also like to see a truly national system of volunteer-screening procedures. “If there was some sort of common approach across the country, that would be beneficial to the sector.”
Public Safety and volunteer groups stress that a criminal records check is only one element of a comprehensive screening program that includes an interview with applicants, personal reference vetting, supervision and evaluation, and followup with program participants.
“There’s no screening process that’s 100 per cent foolproof,” said Susie Mackie, a spokeswoman for Scouts Canada, which has a multi-layered system.
The organization’s interviewers are trained to look for anything unusual when talking to prospective volunteers. Mackie said it’s also a good idea for parents to get to know volunteer leaders and to ask their children about the programs they’re enrolled in.
For the last 10 years, Scouts Canada has also had a policy of requiring two fully screened adult leaders to be present with children.
Shelley Goertzen, general manager of the Kanata Soccer Club just west of Ottawa, echoes that suggestion – for everyone’s sake.
“We always tell our coaches to never be alone with a player that they aren’t related to,” she said. “Just as a matter of general principle, don’t put yourself in situations where anybody’s conduct could be called into question.”

Nearly all the sex offenders who apply for pardons in Canada successfully wipe out their criminal records from public view, despite the Conservative government’s promise four years ago to make the system tougher.
Over the last two years, 1,554 sex offenders applied for a pardon with the National Parole Board; only 41 of them were rejected, leaving 1,513 without a trace of a criminal record, unless they apply to work with children or vulnerable individuals.
The new numbers from the National Parole Board show that the 2.6-per-cent rejection rate for sex offenders is only slightly higher than the overall rate of failed applications for convicted criminals, at 1.5 per cent over the last two years.
The high pardon rate for sex offenders is surprising, given that the Harper government promised to change the rules long before the Easter weekend revelation that hockey coach and sexual predator Graham James had been pardoned in 2007.

What is a pardon?

A fact sheet from the National Parole Board
In 2006, after The Globe and Mail revealed that retired teacher Clark Noble secured a pardon for a 1998 sexual-assault conviction, then-public safety minister Stockwell Day called for tougher rules as part of a review of the pardon system.
“We want to ensure that unwarranted pardons are not granted to violent or sexual offenders,” he said in a statement.
Following up on Mr. Day’s request, the National Parole Board enacted new measures in 2007, calling on two board members, instead of one, to approve or reject requests from sex offenders. In addition, the board decided to undertake “more rigorous” consultations with police in the cases of sex offenders, to “determine if there is any recent and relevant information available.”
But in a statement on Thursday, the government said Mr. James’s pardon, although approved under the old rules in early 2007, demonstrates the need for further changes.
“In 2006, Minister Day discovered inadequacies and moved to address them, based on what was then known. The pardon of Graham James has illustrated that more must be done to safeguard the public and the integrity of the system itself,” said Chris McCluskey, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.
In particular, the government sees a need to change the Criminal Records Act, which doesn’t call on the National Parole Board to differentiate among criminal offences or take account of the serial nature of some crimes.
The number of criminals receiving pardons has increased over the past decade as more employers conduct criminal background checks. Companies offer services to help get the records expunged for $400 to $600.
A pardon means that someone’s criminal record is no longer public and will be kept separately from the records of non-pardoned individuals. However, the records can be disclosed if a pardoned sex offender applies to work in “positions of trust with children and other vulnerable persons.”
An expert in sexual abuse and pedophilia said it is essential to have an alert in police databases when a sex offender seeks a job working with children. Benoît Dassylva, a psychiatrist who has diagnosed and treated hundreds of sex offenders at the Philippe-Pinel Institute in Montreal, said that the clear majority of pedophiles do not recommit crimes, but that, like alcoholics, they have different levels of vulnerability in certain situations.
Liberal MP Mark Holland thinks this week’s display of outrage display of outrage from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government over Mr. James’s pardon was just for show, given that the government approved the National Parole Board’s reforms three years ago.
“They had every opportunity in 2007 to make additional changes,” said Mr. Holland, the Official Opposition critic for public safety. “They are trying to seize on a sensational case and turn it to their political advantage.”
Mr. Dassylva said 85 per cent of cases of sexual abuse of children are committed by friends and family members of the victims, and that toughening up the pardon system is not the only solution.
“For the population,” he said, “it’s easy to believe that the danger is a pedophile with a criminal record lurking in a park, when the real danger is someone we’ve known for two or three years.”

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