Sunday, April 18, 2010
Rushing to judgment on criminal pardons
"He'd (Graham James) wait until the middle of the night, and then he'd crawl around the room in the dark on his hands and knees. He had the blinds duct-taped to the windows so no light could get in. It was the same every time. . . . Graham was on me once or twice a week for the next two years. An absolute nightmare, every single day of my life."
National Parole Board, meet Graham James.
Not the James you pardoned, but the real James who is described by Theoren Fleury, a former Calgary Flame, in his autobiography, Playing with Fire.
The book details years of alleged sexual abuse that Fleury suffered from James, his junior hockey coach. It's also a record of Fleury's self-destruction through drugs and alcohol as he silently struggled with his secret. His failed drug tests ultimately led to the NHL suspending him in 2003.
Fleury uses his book to encourage sexual abuse victims to speak out, saying, "The key to abuse is secrecy. Once the secret is out, the spell is broken."
Ironically, the same might be said about Canada's practice of essentially rubber-stamping the pardons of any ex-convict who applies. Until now, less than one per cent of the tens of thousands of criminals who have served their sentences and applied to have their crimes wiped from police databases have been rejected. The rest get a fresh start, unencumbered by a public police record.
News recently emerged (no one knows how) that James had been pardoned for his sexual abuse crimes more than three years ago. No one informed his victims and no one knows where he is. Last word is he was coaching a young hockey team in Spain.
The secret of our flawed pardoning practices is out. The spell is broken and the public is hopping mad. A Herald online poll showed that 96 per cent of readers think the parole board was wrong to pardon James. (Yeah, that's because the media is biased and is not stating the other side of the story, where people are overreacting and the pardon system doesn't need reform).
Fleury rightly responded by calling for changes to a "flawed system." So did Sheldon Kennedy, the former NHL player who was abused by James for years and came forth to publicly accuse him. His accusations and those of an anonymous player led to a 1997 conviction for James, and his three-and-a-half-year sentence.
Now that the news of James's pardon is out, Kennedy expects more victims to come forward. He says he knows "how much of a serial predator (James) is" and reports that investigators in his case estimated James could have as many as 150 victims.
The very idea of a man like James being pardoned violates our collective sense of justice. But the National Parole Board would have considered none of the above in its decision to grant James a pardon. Its criteria for rubber-stamping a pardon are relatively simple: applicants have served their sentences and paid any fines, followed by three to five years without any criminal convictions. After that, it's just paperwork and a $50 fee.
This process doesn't allow for any kind of discrimination based on the type of crime committed or the potential to reoffend. This, despite known high rates of recidivism for sexual molesters who prey on boys.
The John Howard Society of Alberta website reports on a long-term study which found that 42 per cent of child molesters in Canada were reconvicted of sexual or violent crime during a 15-to 30-year followup period. The highest rate of recidivism (77 per cent) was found in those who had previous sexual offences, who selected boys outside the family and who were never married. The description fits James like a glove.
James may have served his time and satisfied the criteria for a pardon. But his right to privacy and a do-over ended with the sustained and serial abuse of those charged to his care. The process may not discriminate based on the nature of his crime, but people do. Once a child molester, always a child molester. It's time for the pardoning process to reflect that reality.
I have to disagree with this article. People can and do change and we need to give them that opportunity. If we limit people's employment opportunities, by denying them a pardon, they will have an increased probability of re-offending than before. The pardon system is not "flawed." This article is biased as it fails to report on the stats that say 97% of ppl granted pardons are successful in leading crime free lives and only 3% of pardons have been revoked since 1970. Also, only 0.2% of pardons are actually granted to sex offenders, so I am not seeing anything flawed about these statistics.
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 3 1/2 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.