Robert Israel is a partner at Battista Turcot Israel Corbo s.e.n.c. in Montreal. Christine Mainville is a partner at Henein Hutchison LLP in Toronto
In our Orwellian world, with damaging personal information merely a click away, a criminal conviction alone can easily become the most debilitating part of a person's sentence. And so, for many offenders, the ability to eventually obtain a pardon is critical.
In 2012, the Safe Streets and Communities Act, one of the Harper government's "tough on crime" pieces of legislation, lengthened the wait time before a pardon application could be made, from five to 10 years following the end of a sentence for most indictable convictions, and from three to five years for less-serious summary offences. The cost to make an application more than quadrupled from $150 to $631 – a sizable amount for low- or no-income earners. Stephen Harper's government also took away the word "pardon" and replaced it with "record suspension."
The Liberal government has spoken openly about reviewing and amending the stiffer rules introduced by the previous government for those seeking a pardon, but more than two years into its mandate, it has yet to do so.
Criminal law does not operate in a vacuum. Too often, it is a lens through which our greatest social problems can be seen. Murders and sexual assaults are but a small minority of criminal matters. Most criminal files that thread their way through courthouses across the country on a daily basis are less serious and involve accused who do not wake up in the morning with an evil intent. They are too often those with addictions or mental illnesses, or those who need treatment or therapy for other disorders, or the homeless.
And then there are young people who break the law. When they learn from their error, when they grow and correct their ways, there is neither a moral foundation nor any social benefit to unduly delay their access to the work force – not only for them, but for all of us.
This issue transcends any notion of accountability or justification for wrong choices. When someone applies for a suspension of their record, that person is beyond the judgment of the criminal process, having completed a sentence and therefore paid the price society demanded. But most important, that person has not reoffended.
Inherent in our commonly held values of compassion and decency lies the knowledge that we are all imperfect. If we are to allow ourselves to believe we are a nation of second chances, then we must ensure that our law once again reflects that.
A criminal conviction is a serious barrier to obtaining meaningful employment. It can also impact a person's life far beyond the employment context – think of the number of forms and applications, from loans to insurance, that ask about a person's criminal background. Rendering a person more employable and alleviating some of these other obstacles is socially beneficial, and might also be the best protection against further criminal behaviour.
But perhaps most importantly, a pardon can give a deserving person the peace of mind that the past can be left behind. That person can once again believe that society is open to him or her, that he or she can contribute and not be judged, and can return to truly being a full member of the community.
We are reminded too often of the few who reoffend. We should not forget the many who make a mistake and then turn their lives around.
We are, or at least we like to believe we are, a society of second chances. Reducing the wait times and costs for what should once again be called a pardon would go a long way toward upholding that belief.
All that is at stake is extending a hand to those who erred within an otherwise good if not exemplary life, and giving them a chance to move on, to contribute and, perhaps most of all, a chance to find peace and begin anew.