The 10 % of Canadians with a criminal record are part of a new and dangerous sub-class. No, these men and women are not dangerous in that they are more of a criminal threat to our society. In fact, research has suggested that after 7 offence-free years after conviction, those with a criminal conviction record pose less of a threat to commit a serious crime than the average Canadian.
These 10% of the population, from across all socio-economic and racial lines, face challenges we impose on them which will perhaps rebound badly on our society. WE are doing our best to ostracize and disempower this 10%. It is almost impossible to find meaningful employment. More and more landlords and real estate renters are demanding a clean record. So, these 3 million people have increasing difficulty finding work and housing, and become increasingly stressed and find it difficult to be contributing members of Canadian society. How can that be good for our country?
Why do we do this? I suggest that our collective motives are not conscious ones. We have not thought this through. Classical scapegoating theory would instruct us that ‘less-than-stellar’ societies find it convenient to have a scapegoat class. Discriminating against this sub-class also helps to narrow the applicants for fewer and fewer meaningful jobs in Canada. And, this discrimination helps to narrow the applicants for rental housing.
As with all scapegoating and with economics-driven discrimination, there is a lack of rationality and common sense in this trend. How is it rationally reasonable to exclude John from driving a truck because he had a familial molestation charge and is now ‘rehabilitated’? And, how is it reasonable to exclude Sandra from working in a day care because she had a conviction for shoplifting when she was a “starving” student? How can it be justified to exclude a disbarred lawyer from renting an apartment because he was convicted of embezzlement? Surely, the exclusions could be more specifically applied according to the relevance of the conviction to the work being sought.
There is perhaps a vengeful meanness and moral self-righteousness in deciding that one group of people must be socially and economically challenged for the rest of their lives because of past behaviours. This discrimination has become an accepted and unquestioned social convention in Canada. In fact, the recent Conservative government made it more and more difficult for citizens to leave their criminal convictions behind them, regardless of their rehabilitation efforts, by dramatically increasing cost and possibility of pardons – in fact calling it now simply a “suspension of record”.
It has been suggested that, behind this discrimination, individuals and society are projecting their collective fear and guilt, camouflaged as rage, onto a group of citizens unfortunate enough to have been “identified” as criminals. For who can honestly claim that those “identified” and convicted as criminals are, in the vast majority of cases, any different from the rest of us in thoughts and behaviours., And yet, we cement this false, but attractive, sense of difference from them (the sub-culture) by ostracizing them and preventing them from getting work, lodging, travelling and other things we take a rights.
Where does the John Howard Society fit into this? JHS can continue to offer adult justice services to assist those with criminal records in employment and housing search. Apparently, many JHS agencies are dropping adult justice services because of funding issues. To those JHS Boards, I urge you to consider ways to maintain adult justice services, in the tradition of John Howard, even if it must be done by interested and dedicated volunteers under your leadership. Without JHS, what other organizations are capable or willing to do this? None. So, I further appeal to the John Howard Society to go another step.
JHS can also educate Canadian society to the realities of risk to public safety from those with criminal records, and challenge the mythology supporting the current discrimination. JHS can promote public awareness of the terrific rehabilitative and reintegration successes that they assist with each day. They can suggest, in interviews and posters and pressure on politicians, that the exclusions from jobs and tenancies be specific to the particulars of the job or address.
JHS can hold educational seminars for political and government decision-makers in which former offenders can speak with these community leaders and replace fear with truth and hope.
JHS can also demonstrate a different tack by hiring former offenders to serve as peer support workers or simply to use their personal talents and skills.
JHS can also be really daring and do media interviews on the topic in each city or area served by JHS. JHS can bring light to darkness and truth to fears.
We will not be served, as a country, by continuing to create and sustain a sub-class of people and making life as difficult as possible for them because of past behaviours. Imagine if JHS could be the driving force behind persuading politicians to publicly call upon employers and landlords to consider the nature of the convictions and the efforts made since conviction before exclusions. Imagine if JHS’s across Canada addressed this issue with courage and determination!