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.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why is the parole board being criticized? Everyone has a right to be pardoned

There’s been a lot reported regarding the discovery that Graham James managed to gain a pardon from the National Parole Board. The commentary touched on the seemingly secret nature of how it happened, the degradation of his crimes, the potential for re-victimization caused to those damaged by James — all valid concerns. Discussions about the National Parole Boards operational guidelines and the need for legislative reforms followed. Let me throw another log on the fire.
In 1980 Const. Michael Sweet was 30 years of age, a respected member of Toronto’s police department, married with three daughters aged one to six. On March 14 that year he was callously murdered in the line of duty by Craig Munro.
Munro shot and wounded Const. Sweet and during the stand-off which followed, for over an hour, humiliated and tormented him until he ultimately bled to death.
Munro was later convicted and imprisoned. Like all prisoners Munro was eventually eligible to apply for parole. In February 2009 the National Parole Board refused Munro’s application. A year later, 30 years and two days since Const. Sweet’s murder, Munro appeared again before the Board and was stunningly given four unescorted temporary passes.
What changed in a year? The answer is nobody’s sure.
The Parole Board’s decision is not fully understood because aspects of it are cloaked in secrecy. The Federal Privacy Act has allowed Munro to prevent his institutional records from being made public. Surely, one would presume those records must have been given some consideration by the Board. Their contents, I’m sure, would have been very insightful. Problem is neither Const. Sweet’s surviving family members nor the Toronto Police Association were permitted a chance to peruse those documents due to Munro’s Privacy Act claims. How does the Sweet family or the TPA make proper presentation before the Parole Board without benefit of full disclosure?
What’s more troubling about the National Parole Board’s handling of this was the fact they insisted — talk about needing reform — that their procedures be followed to the letter. This meant that some of Const. Sweet’s family still too heartbroken to speak directly about his loss, could not have their victim impact statements read into the record by their lawyer. In order to be considered they had to be read by a family member, so enter Const. Sweet’s daughters.
In a tribute any father would be proud of these women gave voice to their own victim impact statements and despite the overwhelming emotional tumult read the impact statements for others from within the extended family.
Regardless of the grief and re-victimization of Const. Sweet’s family, using institutional records no one else could look at and despite the horrific nature of his crime, Munro got the go-card from the Parole Board. Every year Munro can subject the Sweet family to the same process because that, perversely, is his privilege.
Think about Graham James. Think about Craig Munro. The National Parole Board needs reform and your Member of Parliament needs to hear that from you.

The only thing that needs reform in the National Parole Board is that I believe that they should not be appointed civilians making these decisions. They should have to have a university degree in sociology or criminal justice and a list of clearly defined criteria to follow when deciding if someone should be released. 

Graham James has served his time and had the right to be granted a pardon. Without a pardon, employment opportunities are severely limited and with unemployment, comes the increased probability of an individual re-offending. We need to think of what is in society's best interests. He is a Canadian citizen and deserves to have rights and freedoms, just like anybody else. James has not re-offended for 5 years, before being pardoned, which is good. Also, the pardon system is not in need of any change, as 97% of those pardoned are successful in leading crime free lives and only 3% of pardons are revoked. 

The revelation last weekend that the National Parole Board had pardoned Graham James, the former junior hockey coach convicted in 1997 of sexually abusing Sheldon Kennedy and other teenage players, was met with rage and bewilderment. “Pardon” is a word that, in ordinary lay use, denotes forgiveness and exoneration. It is not easy to use it comfortably in connection with James, who defended himself by insisting that his relationship with Kennedy was “consensual,” and who has been accused of molesting other players during his coaching career, ones not involved in his 1997 trial.
Canadian parole officials see things differently. To them, a “pardon” is an administrative formality, one available virtually as a matter of right to ex-convicts who have displayed lawful behaviour outside of prison.
More than 99 per cent of pardon applications that reach the adjudication stage are granted by the NPB. But to get that far (as only three-quarters of filed applications do), an applicant has to pass several tests, be fingerprinted, compile his own records, and pay fees. Although the volume of pardon applications is expanding fast, it still seems modest—roughly 36,000 were filed in fiscal 2008-09—in a country where over three million people are thought to have had a criminal record.
For summary-conviction offences—misdemeanours whose maximum penalty is less than two years in prison—the law says the parole board must grant a pardon if there has been no subsequent conviction after three years. For the more serious indictable offences, the wait time is five years, and the ex-con has to prove “good conduct” to the satisfaction of the board, supplying police records and court information from the places where he has lived. (In either case, the clock doesn’t start until the whole sentence has been served, all fines or restitution arrangements are paid up, and any community service completed.)
Pardons are revocable; the “good conduct” has to last a lifetime. The board’s director for clemency and pardons, Yves Bellefeuille, estimates that of the approximately 450,000 pardons granted since it was given jurisdiction in 1970, 3.5 per cent have been revoked because the grantee committed another crime or because misleading information was discovered in his application.
Under the Criminal Records Act, a pardon restricts public access to federal records of a particular criminal conviction. But a pardon, unlike a discharge, never leads to the destruction of a record, merely its sequestering. (And other countries aren’t bound to honour Canadian pardons, as some southbound Canadians with half-forgotten criminal records from their youth have discovered at the border.) Police performing an investigation have access to records of pardoned convictions; the CRA only forbids them from disclosing those records to the public.
For sex offenders like James, federal criminal records are specially flagged, and even though James has received a pardon, his conviction still has to be disclosed to potential employers (or volunteer organizations) doing a criminal-record check if the work involves “being in a position of trust or authority” over children or vulnerable adults.
The pardon given to James set off an immediate political controversy. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the Prime Minister phoned him before the story hit the wires and asked him to come up with new legislation revising the pardon system, a product of Trudeau-era justice reforms. The CRA doesn’t distinguish between indictable offences of varying severity and outrageousness. No crime is considered unpardonable, and even where the parole board makes extra efforts to establish “good conduct,” the means available to it are naturally limited, especially as the number of applications grows (with encouragement from an expanding paralegal sector).
Liberal criminologists in the U.S. generally admire Canada’s system of easy rubber-stamp pardons. Plagued by high incarceration rates and a semi-permanent criminal underclass in their own country, they admire the way it quietly facilitates reintegration. But that comes at the cost of making criminal justice more bureaucratic and less public.
The parole board’s explicit policy is that “a pardon is evidence that the conviction should no longer reflect negatively on a person’s character”—an indisputably asinine statement when it comes to the specific case of Graham James, and perhaps a questionable one in any instance. It is strange for the board to admit that it is largely powerless to deny most pardon applications­—as its representatives suggested when the James story broke—and at the same time deny citizens the means to make their own ethical judgments about a person’s “character,” instead substituting its own assessment.
Toews suggested the government might simply remove the possibility of pardon for some criminals. “Pedophiles are especially difficult to rehabilitate, if ever,” he noted. And he seemed to imply that the government might extend wait times for pardons in particularly outrageous offences: “I think there is a distinction to be made between a break and enter and a rape.” This is precisely the sort of political question we elect, and expect, legislators to settle. It may well be time, after 40 years of criminological experience and social change, for them to get involved with fine-tuning the system.

I think pardons are a fundamental right of ex-convicts, as it does facilitate reintegration and rehabilitation. It would be unjust for the penalty of a criminal conviction to last a lifetime because of one's criminal record. Job prospects are seriously impacted long after the prison sentence no matter what the conviction. We also need to work harder at uncovering the root causes of criminal behaviour instead of simply imprisoning people as a quick fix for larger societal problems. Many criminals were victims themselves-- victims of abuse, victims of neglect, victims of society, victims of discrimination. This is not an excuse, but a larger problem which needs to be solved. 

As a former newspaper columnist, I think I have pretty rock-solid law-and-order credentials. I recall arguing at various times, before a national audience, in hard type, that criminal justice is properly regarded as an orderly, deliberate species of revenge; that not only is the death penalty a proper prerogative of the state, but that the guillotine is the most humane and reasonable method of applying it; and that the Middle Eastern custom of severing the hands of thieves, while “barbaric”, may be ethically superior in some respects to our own methods of dealing with them.
So I trust I will not be accused of snivelling liberal cowardice when I ask: why should the National Parole Board necessarily come under suspicion or criticism for granting a pardon to Graham James?
It is common for ink-and-pulp tough guys like me to hold the NPB to a standard of perfection that may or may not be realistic. Without question, this body has made clumsy mistakes and appears susceptible to psychiatric fads, unscientific beliefs, and emotional manipulation by shrewd sociopaths. It is responsible for errors of the most spectacular, naïve, foreseeable kind, and it has learned to suffer beatings from the journalistic cudgels—albeit to no very impressive real-world effect—when it commits one. But where is the mistake here?
Is there some evidence that Graham James has re-offended since his release from prison? If there isn’t, on what basis can the decision of Pierre Dion be criticized? Since we have a system of routine, assembly-line pardons for offenders like James, what more can we expect that those given such pardons will do no harm? Has James done some? A radio personality in my city was heard to growl that someone at the Parole Board “ought to be fired”. For what? Accurately foreseeing that James was no longer a danger to the public?
The “fresh allegations” date back to James’ coaching career, and irrespective of his pardon, he is still subject to arrest and prosecution when it comes to offences for which he hasn’t yet been tried and punished. But people are talking as though “pardon” means “plenary indulgence”. James served his sentence—I won’t say “he paid his debt to society”, but he certainly discharged his specific debt to the state—and the history-effacing effects of pardons are rightly limited for sex offenders in the name of continued deterrence and protection of the innocent. And Theoren Fleury may be upset or uncomfortable that James received a pardon, but Fleury didn’t publicly allege anything against James until very recently, and his right to a hearing of his own grievance is in no way affected by the pardon.

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