Saturday, May 15, 2010
The pardon system doesn't need to be fixed
New federal legislation to tighten up the system for pardoning criminals includes some worthy ideas, but parts of it seem both vague and hurried. There is time in the legislative process, however, to iron out the wrinkles and ensure that the new policy represents the best interests of all Canadians, and not merely a narrow political agenda.
Some Canadians were upset for several reasons when it was learned that convicted sex offender Graham James had received a pardon. They disliked the term pardon because it implied that his crimes had been forgiven and they disapproved of the fact that it might be possible for him to work with young people again.
Changing the name to "record suspension" from "pardon" is the easy part. Longer waiting periods before criminals can apply to have their records closed is also useful. The current system that permits pardons for serious offences after five years is simply not long enough to determine if a person has shed his or her old ways.
The government also wants to deny pardons to those who commit three serious offences, which is reasonable on the grounds that the protection of the public should be more of a priority than granting second chances to habitual criminals.
More complicated, however, is the proposal to ban those convicted of sexual offences involving children from receiving pardons.
It's interesting that this very issue was studied four years ago by former public safety minister Stockwell Day, who came to a different conclusion than the current minister, Vic Toews.
Mr. Day ordered a study of the pardon system after it was discovered that a former private school teacher had his record for sexual assault sealed following an application to the National Parole Board. The minister ordered several changes, but decided that sex offenders should still be eligible for pardons.
Unfortunately, Mr. Toews offered no explanation for what may have caused such a drastic reversal in position, but on the surface it looks more like a reaction to public outrage than a reasoned position.
Sex offences involving children are some of the worst offences in the Criminal Code, but not every offender is necessarily a pedophile or necessarily an everlasting threat to society. It is possible to imagine, for example, an offence committed by an 18-year-old man against a 16-year-old girl that is sexual in nature, such as unwanted touching, but hardly a sexual assault causing bodily injury.
The problem with a blanket ban is that it can stigmatize a young man (or woman) for life, while those convicted of more serious offences are eligible for pardons.
Mr. Day had made the reasonable recommendation that two parole board members, not one, consider applications for pardons. He also suggested that board members seek out police files in cases where they needed more guidance. These were good ideas that should be incorporated into the new legislation.
The purpose of pardons is to help former offenders rejoin society and the workforce, which a criminal record often impedes. It's part of the process of rehabilitation that is in everyone's interest. Those with a demonstrated tendency for crime should never be pardoned, but those who have expressed remorse and regret should be helped to move forward without the stain of a criminal record.
To me, the pardon system is already a success. 97% of people granted pardons are successful in leading crime free lives and only 3% are revoked. To me, that says success not failure. Pardons are essential, to help ex-offenders find meaningful employment and aid in their reintegration. If we limit pardons, we severely limit employment opportunities for ex offenders. With unemployment, comes frustration and the increased probability of re-offending. That doesn't make society safer, it makes it more dangerous. If we are limiting pardons, we obviously do not care about the long term crime prevention and reduction. People can and do change and deserve second chances. Pardons acknowledge that.