OTTAWA — Dozens of civil society groups are urging the federal Liberals to fundamentally revamp the criminal pardon system by automatically sealing a person's record once they have completed their sentence and lived in the community without new convictions.
The Fresh Start coalition, which brings together over 60 groups, says the reforms would promote the reintegration of people with records into society, boost workforce participation and improve community safety.
The coalition includes the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Black Legal Action Centre, the Indigenous Bar Association, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, and the John Howard Society of Canada, as well as many smaller community organizations.
They say the current pardon system is expensive, cumbersome and ultimately prohibitive for many people, making it difficult to get on with their lives.
High application fees, eligibility restrictions and a complicated process discourage or disqualify many from even applying for a pardon, now officially known as a record suspension.
The Liberals have promised to improve the system by making it easier and less expensive.
A bill that was introduced in June, but died with the dissolution of Parliament at the summer election call, proposed to undo measures brought in by Stephen Harper's Conservatives that made people wait longer for a pardon.
Under the Conservative changes, lesser offenders — those with a summary conviction — must wait five years instead of three before they can apply. Offenders who have served a sentence for a more serious crime — an indictable offence — must wait 10 years instead of five.
In addition to reversing these moves, the Liberals planned to slash the application fee to as low as $50 after it spiralled to more than $657 over the years.
The coalition wants the federal government to simplify the system by removing the application process altogether, ushering in what it calls a "spent regime."
It says a process through which an individual's record is automatically sealed, or spent, after a certain amount of time would reduce red tape and significant administrative costs, enhance public safety, and ensure more Canadians are able to get a fresh start and a chance at gainful employment.
People who have received a life sentence or an indeterminate one, such as dangerous offenders, would not see their records automatically expire.
In addition, the existing vulnerable sector check regime, which allows certain records to be checked if someone is applying to work or volunteer with individuals such as children, would also remain in place.
The automatic record suspension would not be immediate, as people would have to live successfully for a period in the community after serving their sentence. The coalition has commissioned an expert to provide evidence-based advice on time-frames.
"The current system is broken, and is placing unnecessary — and at times insurmountable — barriers to recovery and reintegration in front of people struggling to rebuild their lives," said Abby Deshman, criminal justice program director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
Deshman said Wednesday a meeting has been requested with new Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, adding the groups "very much hope that we will be able to work hand in hand with the government on this."
The government's proposed reforms will benefit applicants through a reduced fee, shorter wait periods, community supports and a streamlined online application system, said James Cudmore, a spokesman for Mendicino.
"We will also explore the automated elimination of some criminal records for less serious offences for those who are living crime-free," Cudmore said.
"The review will explore how such a system could be implemented in Canada, but it is important that we prioritize doing this right."
Implementing a spent regime would be a concrete step toward addressing anti-Black racism in the criminal justice system, in the workplace and beyond, said Moya Teklu, executive director of the Black Legal Action Centre.
"It would help ensure that Black people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system are not forever trapped in it, and have a better chance at getting jobs, homes and an education."
A more efficient, cheaper and less arbitrary records management system will remedy the unfairness for those who are entitled to relief but have been denied it due to marginalization and poverty, said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society.
"Such a system is already working well for youth records in Canada and should be applied to adult records," Latimer said.
Lindsay Jennings is eligible to apply for a record suspension after waiting the required time but has struggled with the financial and emotional prospect of obtaining one.
Through her work as a co-founder of the Toronto Prisoners' Rights Project, she now helps incarcerated people get social, financial, legal and health supports.
A key element of the Fresh Start coalition's proposal for a spent regime is the automatic right to a record sealing, she said.
"I wouldn't have to apply, and put (myself) at the hands of somebody deciding whether or not I'm worthy enough for a pardon."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2021.
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press