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Three years ago Ralph Goodale promised ‘fairness’ with reforms to Criminal Records Act – it’s time to make good on that promise
Almost 4 million people in Canada have criminal records. People who have completed sentences and remained crime free for years continue to be punished because their records interfere with their ability to access employment, to volunteer in communities, to travel with families, and to secure safe rental housing.
Record suspensions (formerly known as pardons) help relieve hardships associated with a criminal record by ensuring protections under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Unfortunately, long wait-times before eligibility, high costs, and a complicated application process mean that many continue to endure punishment and discrimination in the community long after they have paid their debt to society.
Three years ago, during one of his first media interviews as Minister of Public Safety, Ralph Goodale promised to ensure ‘fairness and proportionality’ in the justice process through reforms to the Criminal Records Act. He stated that the changes made to Canada’s pardon system under the previous Conservative federal government, including the $631 application fee, were ‘in fact a punitive measure’ and do not serve to support safe and effective reintegration. Sadly, after two public consultations, successful constitutional challenges in Ontario and British Columbia, and countless assurances that #RealChange is coming, people with criminal records still face the barriers imposed by the expensive, restrictive, and complicated record suspension process.
Parliamentary committee report
Last year, Liberal MP Wayne Long’s motion prompted the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security to conduct a review of the record suspension program. During a meeting on December 6, 2018, representatives from Public Safety and the Parole Board of Canada presented information about record suspensions and the Criminal Records Act. MPs from all parties raised concerns about the exorbitant application fees and the many obvious redundancies in the application process.
In the same meeting, the Standing Committee also heard from witnesses representing the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, the 7th Step Society of Canada, and the John Howard Society of Canada. It was through these testimonials that committee members came to understand the real hardships created by the record suspension regime and the urgency with which reforms are needed.
Louise, a Registered Nurse, spoke to the ‘overwhelming distress’ experienced by people as they attempt to navigate the complicated and expensive record suspension application process. She pointed specifically to the difficulties faced by individuals who live in rural areas ‘as the barriers to reach such necessary services as fingerprinting, courthouses, police and postal services would be prohibitively expensive and time consuming’.
Rodney, from the 7th Step Society, spoke to the barrier created by the $631 fee, specifically for low-income, marginalized individuals. He also shared the pain of being denied a record suspension, despite meeting the formal criteria.
On December 13, the Standing Committee presented its final report to the Government. The recommendations include reviewing the application fee, reconsidering the use of the term record suspension, and exploring the option of a free and automatic pardon process – something that is done in other countries, such as the United Kingdom.
Action needed now
We look forward to Minister Goodale not only responding to the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee but fulfilling his undertaking to address the unfairness of the Criminal Records Act by providing protection from discrimination through a process that itself does not discriminate against the poor and marginalized. All who have completed sentences imposed by the courts and remained crime free for the requisite period have repaid their debt to society, and their criminal records should be closed as an operation of law.
Samantha McAleese, PhD Candidate, Sociology, Carleton University
Catherine Latimer, Executive Director, John Howard Society of Canada