Inside Politics

Pardons not just a matter of dollars and cents

The reaction I've received to my story about the Parole Board of Canada's consultations on sharply increasing application fees for pardons has been swift, passionate and interesting. So I thought I'd share some of the opinions to provide a taste of what the board will hear over the next few weeks.

First off, a quick word on why people obtain pardons and why we're talking about this now.

The Canadian Press reported last April that disgraced hockey coach Graham James, convicted of sex crimes, received a pardon. All of a sudden, the whole business of giving people an opportunity to move on with their lives became political.

The prime minister made it clear that his government would not stand for this. With the kind of speed rarely seen in Ottawa, the law governing pardons was amended. The Parole board would process fewer applications, and spend more time on each case.

The government also instructed the parole board to take another look at the administrative fees it charged, even though the board already intended to increase the price from $50 to $150 on Dec. 31.

Now the board is proposing the charge be $631.

And here we are, debating the increase. But advocates opposed to the increase say there's more to this debate than the tough-on-crime government would have people believe.

For years, the parole board, an independent administrative tribunal, has gone about its business processing tens of thousands of parole applications quietly and with little controversy.

The rules are stringent. You can't apply for a pardon until you've served your time, paid any fine, and stayed out of trouble for three, five or 10 years depending on the crime. You can then apply for a pardon, a process that is not automatic.

So why do people apply for pardons? To get jobs or housing or to travel outside the country.

Michael Ashby, the director of the National Pardon Centre, a non-profit organization that offers pardon services, concedes that paying extra money, while a burden, would not necessarily mean the difference between obtaining a pardon or not - at least for his clients. But the move still bothers him.

"The Conservatives are willing to spend billions on new prisons. Price is no concern for minimum sentences and rigid parole policies. But for those people who have made a mistake involving the law and who wish to put that mistake in the past by applying for a pardon, there is not a penny to be found," he said in an email.

John Rogers, head of a company that helps people prepare applications for pardons, pointed out that many people he deals with are on social assistance, such as single moms. In an emailed response, he argues that the fee increase would make a difference:

"Toronto Social Services is being overwhelmed, and a huge percentage of these people cannot find work because of a criminal record. So we increase the fee and make a pardon more expensive and MUCH harder, and taxpayers in return get more unemployed people on assistance and guess what else? What do desperate people do when they have a criminal record and find there is no hope, that they have been branded a criminal? When they have kids who want things? They do whatever it takes. Even if it is a crime."

For his part, public safety minister Vic Toews insists there's no reason for the government to subsidize the cost of processing pardons, a process that is now more difficult.

Wednesday, Toews appointed new members to the parole board. They will have their work cut out for them.

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