OTTAWA – Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is forging ahead with dramatic fee increases for pardon applications despite advice from within his own government that the move will have many negative consequences.
The Conservatives want to quadruple the cost of applying for a pardon to $631 from the current $150, arguing taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize the system.
The move coincides with new provisions under a massive Conservative crime bill that will prohibit anyone with more than three indictable convictions from ever being eligible for a pardon.
Put together, the fee increase and three-strikes rule will knock literally hundreds of thousands of Canadians out of the pardons process.
It’s not only prisoner advocates, church groups, criminologists, psychologists and the Canadian Bar Association who are sounding alarms.
A public consultation process last spring overwhelmingly rejected the fee increase, including surprisingly negative responses from governmental organizations. A report on the consultations, with recommendations, was quietly released in mid-August.
The RCMP, the Canada Border Services Agency, Citizenship and Immigration, the Justice Department – and Public Safety Canada itself – were among 14 government bodies which said a big fee hike for applicants has many downsides.
“Such a large fee increase would pose a financial burden and impediment for many potential applicants trying to reintegrate into society,” says a summary of the common responses provided by government agencies to an independent review panel.
Government agencies acknowledged that the Parole Board of Canada needs more funding.
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The government has already ushered in legislation that now requires the parole board to assess the post-conviction behaviour of applicants to ensure granting a pardon would not “bring the administration of justice into disrepute.”
It means scrutiny of applications – once largely a matter of checking paperwork – has become much more labour-intensive and costly.
The series of changes was sparked by revelations last year by The Canadian Press that serial sex offender Graham James had been quietly issued a routine pardon in 2007. The former junior hockey coach has since been charged with nine more counts of sex offences against young players under his influence.
Coupled with the impending prison release of sex killer Karla Homolka, the news sparked a huge public outcry and spurred the government to action – including pardon changes that many critics say are overkill.
Government bureaucrats appear to be among the critics.
The summary of internal criticism says the application fee hike could have “potential negative impact on women and Aboriginal people” and notes the increase is much higher than for other government services, such as passports.
“Should the program recover costs from users given the social benefits of pardons,” says the bullet-form summary.
“Charter challenges or litigation may result from the increase.”
The internal consultation also suggested the government consider waiving the pardon application fees in some cases.
If the internal consultations were harsh, the public consultations on the fee increase were scathing.
More than 98 per cent of the 1,074 individuals and organizations who responded objected to the proposed fee hike.
The three-member independent advisory panel used the public and internal government responses to advise Public Safety that pardon fees should remain at $150 – a recommendation that has been rejected.
“We will be proceeding with this measure,” a spokesman for the public safety minister said Wednesday in an email.
“Our government realizes that pardons are not a right, and just as law abiding Canadians must do, criminals must pay their own way,” added Michael Patton.
Critics of the government’s changes to the pardons system say the response speaks volumes.
“They’re painting us all with one brush,” said Barrett Fraser, a reformed multiple offender from Winnipeg who would be ineligible for a parole under the new three-strikes rule.
“The government’s position is: once a criminal, always a criminal. I’m telling you that’s not the case.”
Fraser, now a successful business manager in Winnipeg who works with prisoner advocacy group the John Howard Society on the side, cites the example of an impoverished young native woman convicted of writing bad cheques to buy baby formula.
“We’ve now painted her with the same brush as we have Mr. James or Ms. Homolka. I don’t know where the government gets that right or feels that they have the liberty to take that huge leap.”
“Fundamentally that is the whole flaw with this legislation.”
Fraser was one of three ex-convicts who appeared at a Commons committee last November to argue against making multiple offenders like themselves ineligible for pardons.
Conservative MPs on the committee uniformly praised the three men.
“You should be proud and your families should be proud, because it’s a great story,” gushed Tory backbencher Benn Lobb.
“I don’t consider any of you to be in that most heinous (criminal) category,” said Conservative Phil McColeman.
Conservatives at the time, including Toews, hinted amendments to the three-strikes law would be welcome.
“Hypocrites!” Fraser now says in frustration.
The omnibus crime bill C-14 is being rushed through Parliament with limited debate and the same three-strike rule still in place.
“Canadians gave us a strong mandate to keep our streets and communities safe,” Toews spokesman Patton said in an emailed response to questions.
“Specifically, this means implementing our election promise of eliminating pardons for serious offenders.”
John Hutton, executive director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba, said pardon reforms have no place in a government bill entitled the Safe Streets and Communities Act, because they don’t make anyone safer.
“This is going to have an impact on people who have already committed a crime and are trying to move forward and leave their criminal actions behind,” said Hutton.
“We don’t want to impede that. To say somehow that taking away pardons is going to bring down crime is ridiculous.”
Both Hutton and Fraser see the government’s refusal to take advice and its focus on limiting debate as part of the same puzzling mentality.
If you took 1,000 Canadians and gave them all the information on the latest pardons changes, Fraser argued, “a thousand citizens are going to turn around and come back saying, ‘This is a bad idea.'”