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Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the National Victims of Crime Awareness Week symposium in Ottawa on April 19, 2010. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the National Victims of Crime Awareness Week symposium in Ottawa on April 19, 2010. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

With Homolka eligible, Harper cracks down on pardon system Add to ...

Stephen Harper is using the spectre of ex-convict Karla Homolka receiving a pardon as proof Canada is still too easy on offenders and in dire need of more prescriptions from the Conservatives' tough-on-crime agenda.

The law as it stands allows Ms. Homolka to apply for a pardon this year, the Prime Minister pointed out Monday, and he said the fact that nearly all such applications are approved demonstrates the need to toughen up the pardon process.

It's evidence of persistent problems in the justice system, he said. The Homolka example is the third case Mr. Harper has seized upon in recent weeks along with revelations that sex offender Graham James has already received a pardon and that serial killer Clifford Olson is entitled to income support payments for pensioners.

"That, my friends, is how the laws have been written over the past few decades, written when soft-on-crime attitudes were fashionable and concern for criminals took priority over compassion for victims," Mr. Harper told an event to mark national crime victims week.

"The problems run deep, but we will keep pushing forward."

Returning to their law-and-order roots helps the Tories change the channel in federal politics, which have been dominated recently by Conservative MP Helena Guergis's resignation from cabinet and titillating details of the business dealings of husband and former MP Rahim Jaffer.

The Tories are scrambling to toughen the pardon process after they were embarrassed in early April by reports that Mr. James was pardoned for repeated crimes against teenaged hockey players in the 1980s and 1990s. His pardon was granted in 2007.

The Conservatives are expected to introduce legislation before the summer break that represents a more ambitious overhaul than their 2007 effort to tighten the pardon process. Back then, former public safety minister Stockwell Day made relatively minor changes such as requiring two National Parole Board members, rather than one, to review sex offender pardons.

Vic Toews, the current Public Safety Minister, acknowledged the Tories' 2007 changes "were not sufficient to deal with some of the pressing problems that we continue to face."

Ms. Homolka was freed from prison in July, 2005, after serving 12 years for assisting ex-husband Paul Bernardo in the sex slayings of schoolgirls Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. She obtained a light sentence as part of a plea bargain for testifying against Mr. Bernardo. It later emerged that she was less a victim than a willing participant.

She should be eligible to apply for a pardon this summer.

A pardon does not forgive a criminal record but means that someone's conviction is no longer public and does not show up on criminal background checks. The records of sex offenders turn up in checks if they apply to work with children and the vulnerable.

John Rosen, who served as Mr. Bernardo's trial lawyer, said he doesn't believe Ms. Homolka would be granted a pardon given what Canadians know about her.

"Unless she can demonstrate a complete rehabilitation and a specific need for the pardon, that given her involvement and the offences involved, I would doubt someone would exercise their discretion in their favour," Mr. Rosen said. "But I have been wrong before.

He said the legislation as it currently stands works for many young people who have been convicted of minor offences such as drug possession in their teens or early 20s.

"When they're in their 30s or 40s, and they want to travel to the U.S. or get bonded jobs, they can't do it without the pardon."

Lawrence Greenspon, who served as defence lawyer in the Momin Khawaja terrorist trial, decried what he called the Harper government's "knee-jerk" decisions to make laws based on isolated high-profile examples. He said it's unlikely Ms. Homolka, with her notoriety, could rely on a pardon to prevent her conviction from dogging her throughout life.

"The practical impact of her getting a pardon is nil but it's great politics because you once again can dredge up the name 'Homolka,'" Mr. Greenspon said.

Don Davies, NDP public safety critic, said he supports a review of the pardon system given controversy over the James example.

"But I don't think good policy is made by extreme cases."

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