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Liberals table bill to make criminal pardons quicker, cheaper

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OTTAWA — The federal government is tabling legislation to make it easier and less expensive to obtain a criminal pardon.

Introduced in the House of Commons on Thursday, the bill to amend the Criminal Records Act would undo measures brought in by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives that made people wait longer and pay more 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. Those rules, which were unveiled between 2010 and 2012, would be reversed under Bill C-31.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said a swifter, smoother path to pardons will remove barriers to employment, travel and housing applications and clear the way to reintegration for Canadians with convictions in their past.

“There’s a real and lasting stigma attached to those records," he said at a news conference.

"If you can’t get a job, if you can’t get into decent housing, if you can’t get into the appropriate educational institution, your opportunity to reintegrate fully into society and to become a fully contributing member is being significantly restricted. That has a very negative effect on public safety.”

The cost of applying for a pardon shot up to $658 from $50 over the past decade, pushing down the number of applications by 57 per cent, Blair said. Though not in Bill C-31, a planned fee reduction would come through regulatory changes, slashing the price of a pardon to as low as $50, he said.

Fewer than 10 days remain on the legislative calendar of the House, which is slated to rise for the summer on June 23. Numerous other bills demand attention before then as the clock ticks down and a possible election looms, but Blair said the Liberals will "work hard to get that legislation passed."

Some 10 per cent of Canadians have a criminal record and no pardon, also known as a "record suspension." Nearly three quarters of that 10 per cent have never served jail time, Blair said, "and yet they carry the heavy burden of a criminal record throughout their entire lives."

Leaving pardons further from reach has a disparate impact on racialized and Indigenous communities, which are disproportionately impacted by criminal records, he said. That inaccessibility makes up part of the "systemic and structural racial discrimination that exists within the criminal justice system."

Conservative public safety critic Shannon Stubbs said in a statement the party is examining the policy implications of the would-be bill and will discuss it "as a caucus."

The Tories have previously said taxpayers should not subsidize the cost of pardons.

Those convicted of the most serious offences will be ineligible for a pardon.

Under the bill, terrorism sentences of 10 years or more disqualify an individual for record suspension. Life and "indeterminate" sentences as well as sexual offences against children would remain ineligible.

The Parole Board of Canada aims to launch an online application portal to streamline the process for those who do qualify — offenders who have served their sentence, waited the requisite number of years and demonstrated they are law-abiding.

In April, the Liberal budget earmarked $88.2 million over five years, starting this fiscal year, to the parole board, the RCMP and Public Safety Canada to upgrade the pardon application process.

Blair said one-quarter of that amount will go toward community-based organizations to help offenders complete their applications, reducing reliance on third parties that charge exorbitant rates.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press