Fewer Canadians are applying for pardons since the federal government hiked application fees and changed the rules to make offenders wait longer before they can ask for a suspension of criminal records.

The changes came into effect in the spring of 2012. In the one-year period following, applications for record suspensions received by Parole Board Canada dropped by one-third, to 19,526 in 2012-13 from 29,832 the year before.

No one from the board would agree to an interview, but Howard Sapers, Canada's Correctional Investigator, attributes some of the drop to the government increasing the application fee to $631 from $150.

"That's a considerable amount of money for many people with a criminal record, particularly if they're already having trouble gaining employment."

"There's no way I can afford to pay out $600," says a London, Ont., woman the CBC has agreed not to identify.

Eight years ago, she was intoxicated and sitting in the passenger seat of an idling vehicle while her friend popped into convenience store. A police officer passing by noticed her condition and charged her with being the care and control of a vehicle while impaired.

She lost her licence and paid a fine, but says the punishment continues to this day because she can't get a job with a record. Her background is in accounting and payroll but right now, she says she'll settle for anything.

"I've even applied for a cleaning position. I've applied for receptionist, anything that will help me get back into the workforce."

Longer waiting periods

Norman Boxall, a criminal defence lawyer in Ottawa, agrees the fee may be a barrier to some but he feels the greatest impact is from longer waiting periods before offenders may apply for a record suspension.

'There's no way I can afford to pay out $600.'- Unnamed London, Ont., woman

"I've had a number of clients who've been ineligible to apply for pardons because the waiting periods have been expanded exorbitantly and improperly in my view," says Boxall.

For summary offences, the waiting period was extended from three to five years, for more serious indictable offences the waiting period jumped from five to 10 years. Boxall says the long wait, coupled with a current processing delay of two years is hurting younger offenders the most.

"A young person who may be in first year university and is involved in some transgression where they may have received probation or fine won't be able to get a record suspension until their thirties, and by that time they'll have lost innumerable employment opportunities."

15,875 applicant backlog

Criminologist Samantha McAleese says more employers are requesting criminal record checks these days, presenting a major obstacle to those who can't afford to apply for a record suspension or who have to wait years before they are eligible to do so.

She says being pardoned helps people shed the label of being a criminal and allows them to move on. "If someone has a record, it typically doesn't matter what that record is. It's going to eliminate them from the process of applying for a job," says McAleese.

Sapers says he's concerned the fees, longer waiting period and current backlog of 15,875 applications for record suspensions is extending punishment far beyond the sentence imposed by the courts.

"Now many people would say that's the price of a criminal record, but, on the other hand, when the criminal courts impose a sentence, that's supposed to be the price."

But in an email to CBC News Thursday, Parole Board Canada said there is currently no processing delay for applications received after Feb. 22, 2012, when the new user fee went into effect along with new service standards. The agency said people applying today for a criminal record suspension would wait 73 and 95 days for summary and indictable offences respectively.

Clarifications

  • This sub-headline on this story has been edited from an earlier version to clarify that the pardons application backlog is not increasing.
    Nov 21, 2013 2:54 PM ET