From the archives: Lifetime Effects of a Criminal Record

May 27, 2024 |

Post # 242

800 words; 4 minutes to read

Summary: a criminal conviction carries many consequences that can last a lifetime.  The idea that a sentence is ever ‘over’ is not consistent with reality.

An earlier version of this post appeared in September, 2017  – here.  The issues are at least as relevant today.

It’s commonly believed that the consequence of being convicted of a crime lies in the sentence imposed by a judge.  “Do the crime, do your time”, one often hears.  But as a report from the Canadian Bar Association shows, the sentence imposed is only one consequence, and often not the most difficult, of any criminal conviction.

The CBA report has the exciting title of “Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction: Considerations for Lawyers” – a title not likely to be made into a movie any time soon.  In fairness, the document is intended for criminal lawyers, not for a mass public.  But it has a lot to say about the many results of being convicted that many people don’t think about when facing a criminal charge and deciding how to plead to it.

More than 90% of criminal cases where the charges are not dropped or stayed result in a guilty plea, not a trial.  Most defendants rely on the advice of their lawyer when making this decision.  If lawyers aren’t aware of all the ramifications of a conviction, they aren’t able to give their clients the best advice.

So many negative consequences

So what are some of these consequences beyond the sentence?  The CBA documents lists quite a few of them:

– A conviction can affect your access to your minor children if you have them

–  A criminal conviction can impair relationships with family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances in lasting ways.  Marriages break up.  Friends abandon you.  Colleagues shun you.

– New relationships are also affected. You will always wonder what anyone you meet knows about you, or might find out, or might think about you if they did know.  You may go out less, meet fewer people, and censor what you tell people about yourself.

– You may be required to provide a DNA sample for police records

– You may lose your job, and are likely to have considerable difficulty gaining reasonable employment since many employers screen out those with criminal records.

– A criminal record can prevent you from entering certain occupations or professions, or certain training programs.  It can greatly limit even your opportunities to be a volunteer.

– Your photograph, fingerprints and other identifying information may be retained and used by police.

– In many provinces you are not able to serve on a jury

– You will likely not be able to enter the United States, and may be prevented from entering other countries depending on the data that Canada exchanges with them or whether they ask about a criminal record on a traveler’s entry form.

– For some kinds of offences you may have difficulty getting a Canadian passport.

– Someone who is not a Canadian citizen may be deported and denied re-entry to Canada after a conviction.  Pending that deportation a person may be held in custody for very long periods of time, regardless of the length of the criminal sentence;

– Even if not deported, a person convicted of a crime may be denied citizenship

The internet makes it worse

The effects of a criminal record have been dramatically worsened by the internet. People can and do look up others they meet, and the way that search engines are structured, if a criminal event has been reported it is very likely to come up on such searches.  While an arrest or  criminal charge would come up, a subsequent dropping of charges likely would not because those are less likely to be reported.  The internet also gives license to anyone who wants to ‘troll’ someone with a criminal record.  So when the police issue a release about someone they have arrested they are putting a permanent online ‘guilty’ marker on that person.

A lifetime sentence

All these consequences, unlike an actual sentence, have no expiry date.  They last forever.  In that sense, every criminal sentence is a life sentence.

These consequences exist even though the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that “individuals who have paid their debt to society” should not face further obstacles in their lives.

Even worse, some of these negative consequences can occur as a result of being arrested and charged, even if there is never a conviction.

Several million Canadians – perhaps one in seven or one in eight adults – have had to deal with these consequences at least to some degree.  If you include close family of those people, a huge number of Canadians have their lives hampered or limited – or much worse than that – because our systems never forgive people for their wrongs.  But we could and we should.

The John Howard Canada blog is intended to support greater public understanding of criminal justice issues in Canada.  Blog content does not necessarily represent the views of John Howard Society of Canada.  All blog material may be reproduced freely for any non-profit purpose as long as the source is acknowledged.  We welcome comments (moderated) and suggestions for content.  Contact:



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