Public safety minister vows to overhaul 'punitive' criminal pardons system

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says changes made by the previous government to the criminal pardons system were punitive and his department could reverse them.

Conservatives quadrupled application fees and brought in longer waiting periods for pardons

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says the quadrupling of the fee to apply for a pardon was a 'punitive measure,' and the government will re-examine the decision. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale tells CBC News that changes made by the previous government to the criminal pardons system were punitive and that his department could reverse them.

Under the Conservatives, pardons were replaced with "record suspensions." The application fee was quadrupled and the number of years needed to be eligible to request a record suspension was doubled for some people.

"The previous government had a certain ideology and a certain approach that needs to be re-examined as to whether it was then or continues now to be appropriate," Goodale said of the overhaul.

The changes came into effect almost four years ago. Immediately, the number of people who applied plummeted.

In 2011-12, the Parole Board of Canada received 29,829 pardon applications. Last year, it received 12,743 requests for a record suspension.

Offenders also have to wait much longer to be eligible to apply. For summary offences such as possession of marijuana, people must wait five years to prove they are now law-abiding citizens. For more severe offences such as robbery, the wait time is a decade.

The higher fees don't help either. In 2012 they jumped from $150 to $631.

"It looks to me that what was done was far beyond any measure of practical cost-recovery. It was in fact a punitive measure, and I think with the appropriate authorities within the government we need to re-examine that decision to see if it was appropriate," said Goodale.

Conservative changes called 'real tragedy'

Ottawa criminal defence lawyer Norm Boxall hopes Goodale will reverse all the changes made by the Conservatives.

"With the almost necessity of getting a criminal record check for every job, every employer, every volunteer group is sending people down to the police station to get criminal record checks forms completed, it means that people are essentially unemployable."

Boxall said many employers don't distinguish between offences, ruling out hiring anyone who's been convicted.

"It's a real tragedy, especially for young persons who could be charged at 18, 19 years old on an offence and not be eligible for a pardon until their mid-30s," he said.

Goodale said even the name change from pardon to "record suspension" will be under review.

That's welcome news to Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which helps female offenders.

"Pardon indicates that someone has moved on from where they were, not just that we're hanging it over your head like a big dagger about to drop down on you if we perceive you've done something wrong," she told CBC News.

The Parole Board says pardons are designed to support rehabilitation and reintegration into the community. Goodale said the Conservative government had an ideology he isn't sure was aimed to achieve those objectives.

"Protecting the public is important, but we also need to look at the issue of balance and fairness and proportionality, and we will examine all of those things in reference to this issue."


Alison Crawford is a senior reporter in CBC's parliamentary bureau, covering justice, public safety, the Supreme Court and Liberal Party of Canada.