Government set to deny pardons for 'serious crimes' after James controversy
OTTAWA - The federal government will introduce legislation Tuesday aimed at preventing someone like convicted sex predator Graham James from ever again receiving a pardon.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews plans to table a bill that would overhaul the system, making it much tougher, if not impossible, for repeat violent offenders to obtain a pardon.
The new measures are intended to put an end to what the government considers a "rubber stamp" for applications from the vast majority of convicts.
"The legislation will take action to ensure the National Parole Board has the tools it needs in order to maintain the accountability of offenders convicted of serious crimes," says an internal government memo obtained Sunday by The Canadian Press.
"It is our belief that the comprehensive legislation Minister Toews plans to introduce will give Canadians greater confidence in the integrity of the system and help to make our streets and communities safer."
The bill is expected to usher in new guidelines that would effectively direct parole board members to deny a pardon to those who have shown a pattern of multiple, serious offences.
James, a former junior hockey coach, was granted a pardon from the parole board in 2007 for sexual assaults against two teens, including Sheldon Kennedy, who went on to play in the National Hockey League.
The Canadian Press learned of the James pardon after a previously unknown accuser contacted Winnipeg police.
Upon hearing of the pardon, Prime Minister Stephen Harper immediately ordered Toews to revamp the system. He subsequently noted sex killer Karla Homolka would be eligible to apply for a pardon this year.
The internal government memo, dated last Friday, says that since almost all pardon applications succeed, "there is also understandable fear that other notorious criminals will be given a rubber stamp."
An independent source confirmed the memo's authenticity.
A pardon does not erase a person's criminal record, but can make it easier for someone to get a job and travel abroad. In the case of sex offenders, a flag remains on the pardoned person's file, serving as an alert to community groups and employers should they seek work with children or other vulnerable people.
However, it has become clear in recent weeks that detecting such a flag can be a time-consuming and often unwieldy exercise.
All but a small segment of criminals, such as dangerous offenders and those serving life sentences, are eligible to apply for a pardon.
Convicts must wait either three or five years after a sentence has been served, depending on the severity of the crime. In weighing applications from people convicted of serious offences, the parole board is obliged to ensure the person has not reoffended and has displayed "good conduct."
Just 800 of the more than 40,000 pardon applications were rejected last year.
When asked about the planned changes, Chris McCluskey, a spokesman for Toews, said, "Stay tuned."
Introduction of the bill — the latest in a series of Conservative tough-on-crime initiatives — is bound to reignite public controversy over the procedure for setting aside someone's criminal record.
While many expressed outrage that a notorious sex criminal like James could obtain a pardon, those who work with offenders said changing the law because of one exceptional case would do more harm than good.
Critics accused the government Sunday of making hasty changes for political gain before properly studying the issue.
"Is there any body of evidence to argue that these kinds of legislative changes are really warranted?" asked Craig Jones of the John Howard Society, a group that helps offenders readjust to society.
"What evidence is there that the persons pardoned really turn out to be a risk to public safety?"
Don Davies, the NDP public safety critic, said the pardon system is an integral component of public safety, designed to keep convicts from reoffending.
"I want to have a complete analysis of the system before I would go jumping to make changes," he said Sunday. "This is what the Conservatives do, they jump first, they look later."
The coming changes follow amendments prompted by a 2006 review, which ensured a sex offender would need the approval of no longer just one but two Parole Board members to obtain a pardon.