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.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Rushing to judgment on criminal pardons

On the distasteful subject of Graham James, let's start by going over the things we can all agree on about the pedophile former hockey coach.
First, a person who abuses a position of trust and authority to sexually assault a minor is despicable. And the crime -- especially if it is repeated over time with a succession of victims -- is one that is as close to being unpardonable as most of us can imagine.
Second, tabs need to be kept on such a predator, since experience and common sense tell us there is a risk of reoffending, and that society will share the blame if it does not take steps to ensure more vulnerable young people are not taken advantage of by someone known to have this particular screw loose.
Next, let's go over a few things we can all agree on about what should happen with criminals in general after they have served their time.
For starters, we don't want them to be a permanent financial burden on the state, especially after we have spent a fortune investigating them, giving them a fair trial, incarcerating them and then monitoring them during their parole period.
On the contrary, we would like them to get a job, pay taxes and support themselves. Of course, we'd like them to make some form of restitution to society, starting with a convincing demonstration of remorse. But as a minimum, we don't want to ever see them in the justice system again, whether it be a repeat of the original offence or any other illegal activity.
So then: How does this rough consensus help us evaluate a part of the justice system so unfortunately -- and misleadingly to many ears -- covered by the word "pardon"?
If it was meant to convey the first definition offered by the Oxford Concise Dictionary -- forgiveness -- Canadians would rightly be burying Stephen Harper's government in mail asking why the law would allow such a dispensation to be given to a sex offender who has never even apologized to his victims, and what business it was of the Parole Board to forgive James on society's behalf.
But the kind of pardon involved here is the Oxford Concise's second definition -- remission of legal consequences of crime or conviction -- and even then it is only partial. The person granted this legal "pardon" still has a criminal record, and in the case of a sex offender, still has his name on the appropriate registry.
The key thing about a pardon -- available to anyone who has not been in legal trouble for five years -- is that it makes it easier to find a job by allowing the person to claim on an employment application that he has no criminal conviction. And even then, a pardoned sex offender is flagged if he seeks a job that involves children or other vulnerable people.
Needless to say, having stable employment is a key to preventing a person from turning to illegal means in future to make a living.
Now, it may be that Canadians should have learned about this "pardon" for an unforgivable crime more than three years ago. It may further be (to put it mildly) that many people feel James's crime -- assaulting two young men an estimated 350 times over 10 years -- was not punished severely enough with his three-and-a-half-year jail sentence back in 1997. It may even be that we believe that sex offenders should be lumped in with people given life or indeterminate sentences as ineligible for a return to normal employability.
But in evaluating our opinions about these matters and setting them off against the social danger associated with inhibiting rehabilitation, we must be careful not to be distracted by that emotion-stoking word "pardon." We must remember that for the vast majority, the pardon system has been proven an effective rehabilitation tool. Only three per cent ever need to have it revoked. And we probably should ask ourselves whether Ottawa would have seized on the tough-on-crime possibilities of the James case if he had been given something called Conviction Record Recalibration instead of a pardon?
Nevertheless, we have gained from the controversy: we now understand better what a pardon is, and that the real question is not James, per se, but rather whether any sex offender should ever get one. When it pardoned James, the Parole Board was simply adhering to the law. As of 2005, there were 795 pardoned sex offenders, 0.2 per cent of paroles granted since 1970.
It's up to the politicians to change the situation should they think it is necessary.

It's the kind of story guaranteed to spark outrage: A much-despised hockey coach, who was jailed for sexually exploiting his adolescent charges, gets a pardon from the National Parole Board.
The federal government certainly wasted no time expressing its horror. How could it resist? In some quarters, the parole board is almost as reviled as Graham James, the coach it pardoned. And so when the Canadian Press broke the story this week, three years after James got the pardon, the Prime Minister's Office reacted with lightning speed, calling the case "deeply troubling and gravely disturbing."
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has since let it be known that the prime minister himself called him to express his concern and demand that the problem be "flagged" as urgent. Not surprisingly, Toews says he's considering a law to make it extremely difficult if not impossible for sex offenders and other unspecified types of criminals, to get pardons.
On first blush, that sounds reassuring. After all, what could be more important for a government than making the world as safe as possible for kids and teenagers? But on sober second thought, it seems that everyone might just be overreacting a little bit .
James is certainly a reprehensible character who abused his authority and trust as well as his players. He deserved every minute of the 31/2 years in prison he was sentenced to. But having paid for his crime, he's also entitled to the same consideration as every other convicted felon. And that includes the right to apply for a pardon five years after the end of his sentence.
James was pardoned in 2007, along with 15,000 other ex-convicts, all of whom had met the good-conduct criteria set out in the law. It's worth remembering that these pardons are fragile things. At the slightest hint of wrongdoing, they can be rescinded.
And while the pardon puts James's criminal record beyond the reach of most people, it doesn't mean he can sign up as a hockey coach or a scoutmaster without anyone finding out about his past. His name will still be flagged on the Canadian Police Information Centre's database, making it pretty well impossible for him to work with children or young people.
There's no evidence that the pardon system is failing Canadians or their children. The parole board has granted 234,000 of them since 1970, and rescinded fewer than three per cent. There's also some evidence that pardons do help ex-convicts reintegrate into society, which helps to make the world safer for all of us.
However, if Toews can demonstrate that the system puts children at risk, then he should go ahead and revamp the whole procedure. But to do on the basis of one sensational case would be irresponsible.

I completely agree with these articles. The government should not be changing the laws regarding pardons, based on one sensational case which is over-sensationalized by the media, to make it appear worse than it actually is. The pardon system is successful and I don't think we can make it MORE successful as already 97% do not re-offend after being pardoned. Unemployment actually considerably increases the probability of somebody re-offending. We need to help reintegrate this individuals into society. 

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