Tories wanted to reform pardons in 2006

Altering the way criminal pardons are doled out in Canada so that sex offenders can't readily get them would be relatively easy, a legal expert says, raising questions about why the government didn't do so 3½ years ago when it first tackled the issue.

Altering the way criminal pardons are doled out in Canada so that sex offenders can't readily get them would be relatively easy, a legal expert said Thursday.

"It could be a simple sentence in the Criminal Records Act that says the minister of public safety will have the authority to list certain criteria that the National Parole Board has to follow," Toronto lawyer and author Michael Carabash told CBC News.

Convicted sexual predator Graham James, seen in 1989, was pardoned by the National Parole Board three years ago. (Bill Becker/Canadian Press)

Indeed, the Tory government sought to amend the pardon process in 2006, after revelations remarkably similar to those that emerged this week about sex offender Graham James.

Public outrage erupted when it became known that James — a onetime junior hockey coach who pleaded guilty to molesting two of his players, including former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy — received a pardon in 2007 after completing a 3½-year prison sentence.

A shocked Prime Minister's Office called it "deeply troubling" and asked Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to propose reforms to the National Parole Board's pardon process. Toews responded that the government will look for ways to stop "rubber-stamped" pardons.

The government's indignation echoed its reaction in 2006, when a former Toronto teacher who had pleaded guilty in 1998 to sexually assaulting a student was granted a pardon. After that case, involving teacher Clark Noble, the then public safety minister said he asked the National Parole Board to review the process for granting pardons to criminals convicted of violent or sexual offences.

"We want to ensure that unwarranted pardons are not granted to violent or sexual offenders," Stockwell Day said at the time.

Tweaks were made to the parole board's hearings procedure for sex offenders, but the government didn't enact changes to the Criminal Records Act.

This week, the parole board cited that act in explaining how James got his pardon.

"The Criminal Records Act does not differentiate pardon applicants by the type of offence they have committed, nor does it allow the board to refuse to grant a person a pardon based on the nature of their crime," board spokeswoman Caroline Douglas said.

The government has not said whether, this time, it will seek to amend the statute to make it tougher for sex offenders to get pardons. But lawyer Carabash said it shouldn't be difficult.

The Liberals added provisions to the Criminal Records Act in 2000 that dealt specifically with sex crimes, and the changes were passed into law within a year, Carabash said.

With files from Neil Morrison