Forget the word pardon. With the passage of the omnibus crime bill, the term now becomes record suspension.
Of course, it’s not just words that are changing. Under Bill C-10, the government has extended the waiting periods to apply for a record suspension to five years from three years for summary offences and to 10 years for indictable matters.
At the same time, it has made certain people ineligible for a record suspension, including those convicted of a sexual offence involving a minor as well as those convicted of more than three offences, each of which was prosecuted by indictment or was subject to a maximum sentence of life in jail.
“Your entire life is completely derailed by this one mistake,” Toronto criminal defence lawyer Roots Gadhia says of the implications of a criminal conviction as a result of the changes.
But it’s not just the bigger changes in the omnibus bill that are affecting people with criminal convictions.
Smaller changes, such as the increased cost of getting a pardon, are also making things difficult for low-income people, says Gadhia, who estimates the process now costs about $650 to $700, up from $75 in the past.
That’s due in part to added steps in the process and new requirements around things like fingerprints, she notes.
Bill C-10 isn’t the only recent change to the pardon system. In June 2010, Parliament passed Bill C-23A in response to the looming pardon eligibility of Karla Homolka.
Among the many changes, the bill gave the National Parole Board the authority to consider whether granting a pardon would bring the justice system into disrepute.
In doing so, it can take into account the nature, gravity, and duration of the offence, the circumstances of it, and any information on the applicant’s history.
The result, according to Gadhia, is a reduced chance of getting a pardon for some offenders. “Record suspension is no longer automatic,” she says. “In the past, you would get your pardon.
There was a considerable amount of reliability or guarantee in the pardon process. Now it’s no longer a guarantee. It is a decision to be made as opposed to [saying], ‘You’ve done what we require of you.’”
Other changes in Bill C-23A included an extension of the waiting period to 10 years for serious personal injury offences. In addition, it allowed for a notation in the criminal records system that a pardon had been granted for certain sexual offences.
Brad Heron, owner of Pardon Granted in Toronto, says there has been talk that the parole board will soon increase its administrative fee to $630 from $150 currently.
But he doesn’t believe the legislative changes so far have altered the landscape that much for the people he sees.
He notes that among the clients his firm helps to apply for a pardon, the overwhelming majority are successful. “The only reason we’ll get denied is if a client doesn’t disclose something,” he says.
“When the documents are prepared properly, there’s generally no issue in getting a pardon,” he adds.
Heron notes the process can take a while — often up to 12 to 14 months — but says that’s likely due to the volume of applications at the parole board.
Nevertheless, he has been seeing more people looking for help recently. “I can tell you, the last couple of months, personally, I’ve been busier,” he says.
The longest part of the process is getting fingerprints back from the RCMP, which Heron says can take up to three months.
In addition, his firm has had to raise its prices somewhat in order to take additional steps to ensure the applicant’s success, including getting multiple letters of reference to the parole board.
Nevertheless, Heron says getting a record suspension is becoming increasingly important for people. That’s because more and more employers are including the lack of a criminal record as a term of employment.
Even insurers will try to deny coverage to businesses that hire people with criminal records when they’ve suffered some sort of loss such as theft, says Heron. The result is an even greater incentive to require people to have clean records, he notes.
In one case, in fact, Heron has a client who needs a pardon for an impaired driving conviction in order to go to teacher’s college. Others are landed immigrants with a conviction who now want to apply for citizenship.
For Gadhia, it’s issues like those that make pardons a key issue for people. With 2.8 million criminal records held in the RCMP’s central repository in Ottawa, it affects a lot of people, she says.
“It does affect somebody that you know,” she says, noting a lot of people end up with criminal convictions for breaches after receiving a conditional discharge and probation for a minor offence.
The result, in her view, is that people now face punishment for life due to the added roadblocks in getting a pardon. “The lasting effect of a criminal conviction can’t be understated,” she says.
Heron, though, doesn’t think things are changing that much. “I don’t think it’ll necessarily become more difficult,” he says, adding he’s not worried about the name change to record suspension either.
“Just a different term,” he says.
Another pardon company, however, says the changes have been significant.
Azmairnin Jadavji, president of Pardon Services Canada, notes that when his company began operations in 1989, the pardon fee was $50 and the processing time was about six months.
“Now they take about two years,” he says, reiterating Heron’s comments that the fee is now likely to go up to $630 from the current $150.
Like Gadhia, he believes the legislation will affect a lot of people, particularly since 13 per cent of the population has a criminal record. Still, he emphasizes that those who might want to rush an application in order to beat the new restrictions are likely out of luck.
That’s because it takes several months to get the information required from the RCMP in order to make the application, meaning the changes will have taken effect by the time they get it. “It’s mean-spirited legislation, for my two cents’ worth,” says Jadavji.