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Tories vow to crack down on pardon system

Vic Toews, then Treasury Board president, responds to the opposition during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb.27, 2009.

Adrian Wyld

The Harper government is vowing to force the National Parole Board to stop rubber stamping tens of thousands of annual requests from criminals seeking a pardon and a clean slate.

The number of criminals receiving pardons has increased fourfold over the past decade as more employers conduct criminal background checks and more companies offer their services to help have the records expunged.

The trend came to light after the weekend revelation that sexual abuser Graham James was pardoned for his repeated crimes against teenaged hockey players in the 1980s and 1990s.

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The pardon so angered Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he called Public Safety Minister Vic Toews on Friday demanding new legislation to limit the practice.

"The Prime Minister doesn't call me every day, and he doesn't call me on Good Friday because he has nothing else to do. He is very concerned about this issue," Mr. Toews said. (Canadian Press reported the story on Sunday, and called the Prime Minister's Office for comment earlier.)

Mr. Toews said the government will quickly prepare legislation to limit pardons for serious offences, in particular those of a sexual nature, while keeping the current practice for cases such as impaired drivers.

"Certain types of criminals cannot be rehabilitated," Mr. Toews said, adding that he wants the "pattern of criminal activity" to be considered before the National Parole Board issues a pardon.

The independent Parole Board admitted its powerlessness in the current system, saying in a statement that it has "very little discretion in the granting or refusal of a pardon" and can't "differentiate pardon applicants by the type of offence they have committed."

Still, the John Howard Society, which helps offenders readjust to society after release, called for caution.

"I think we ought not be running around with our hair on fire every time an institution like the pardon system or the parole system doesn't live up to our expectations," said spokesman Craig Jones.

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Since 1970, there have been 10,000 pardons a year, on average. The number went up to 15,000 in 2006, and has now reached 40,000 a year, with a rejection rate of 1 per cent to 2 per cent.

To remove their criminal record from public view, applicants have to wait three to five years after serving their sentence and show that they have conducted themselves appropriately during that period.

Mr. James was convicted of sexual assault in 1997. He received a 3 1/2-year prison sentence, and was granted a pardon from the National Parole Board in 2007. The pardon allowed him to travel or look for a job more easily, with his record disclosed only if he was applying to work with children.

"In the case of criminal records of persons pardoned for sexual offences, these are flagged in the Canadian Police Information Centre [CPIC] allowing for these records to be disclosed in screening individuals for positions of trust with children and other vulnerable persons," the Parole Board said in a statement.

Mr. Toews said there is no way to revoke Mr. James's pardon, and that he is focusing on the future. "I'm more concerned about looking at the broader issue of how pardons are granted and the legislative provisions governing that decision," Mr. Toews said, vowing to consult with his department and victims' and police groups.

However, he said he will not politicize matters by involving himself in the approval process for the tens of thousands of annual requests for pardons.

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"The option is legislative change [involving the Criminal Records Act]rather than changing who makes the determination," he said.

The Liberal Party said it is willing to co-operate with the government on changes to the pardon mechanism for "serious and grave" crimes. However, Liberal MP Mark Holland said he hopes the government is not "playing politics with crime."

Mr. Holland said the Harper government has failed too often in recent years to guide its tough-on-crime agenda through Parliament and into law.

"They are more interested in the politics of crime than they are in finding solutions," he said.

NDP MP Don Davies also said he is open to reforming the pardon system, while urging MPs to avoid a "knee-jerk reaction" to the latest news.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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