OTTAWA — A panel of MPs wants the federal government to look at making criminal pardons automatic for some offenders who have served their sentences.
The House of Commons public safety committee also suggests lowering the $631 fee for a pardon and simplifying the often complex process for applicants.
A criminal record can hinder a person’s ability to get a job, find housing, go to school or travel, committee members say in a report tabled without fanfare just before the parliamentary holiday break.
Under changes brought in by the former Conservative government, lesser offenders — those with a summary conviction — must wait five years instead of three before they can apply to the Parole Board of Canada for a pardon.
Offenders who have served a sentence for a more serious crime — an indictable offence — must wait 10 years instead of five.
In addition, the application fee quadrupled to $631 from $150 to ensure full cost recovery, and the name for a pardon was changed to the more neutral-sounding term “record suspension.”
Wayne Long, the New Brunswick Liberal MP whose motion prompted the committee review, told the MPs that sometimes, often early in life, mistakes lead to criminal records.
“As a society, we need to be able to provide deserving citizens with a second chance,” he said. “Unfortunately, for many Canadians, especially those in low-income situations, the criminal justice system often fails to provide a second chance.”
He spoke of a single mother with an excellent work record who was offered five well-paying jobs over a six-month period.
“These offers were all rescinded when it was revealed she had a summary offence on her record. She stole a pair of jeans in 1998 — her one and only offence. Now Susan cannot find quality employment, and she cannot afford the cost of a criminal record suspension,” Long said.
“To somebody living in poverty, $631 is an insurmountable amount of money.”
Conservative MP Jim Eglinski, a committee member, questioned the notion of the government absorbing all costs of pardon processing, suggesting instead that only people of limited means receive assistance.
Ultimately, the committee recommended the government review the fee structure. It also called for consideration of measures to make the process “more accessible,” as well as another look at the term “record suspension,” given that some offenders appreciate the significance of being pardoned by society.
The MPs also recommended the government examine “a mechanism to make record suspensions automatic in specific and appropriate circumstances.”
They did not provide examples of such circumstances. However, during the committee hearings, the John Howard Society of Canada proposed the idea of automatically closing a criminal record once an offender had completed their sentence and a crime-free period had passed.
Such a system would eliminate the costs and unfairness of the current system, said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the charitable organization, which presses for criminal justice reforms.
The Liberal government said two years ago it would review the Conservative changes that made people wait longer and pay more to obtain a pardon.
In response to a federal consultation, a large majority said the $631 fee posed a substantial hurdle for people trying to turn their lives around. Most respondents also felt the application process was long and complicated.
The government has already taken a step toward streamlining the process for certain offenders.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale promised in October it would soon be quicker — and less expensive — to obtain a pardon for a previous conviction of simple marijuana possession, now that recreational pot use is legal.
Coming legislation will waive the waiting period and fee for those seeking a pardon for possession offences.
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press