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Let’s make Bill C-31 happen | John L. Hill

Monday, June 14, 2021 @ 1:06 PM | By John L. Hill


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John L. Hill %>
John L. Hill
When a prisoner is released into the community, the major difficulties in reintegration involve what most of us take for granted: getting a job and a place to live. When living conditions are worse outside the prison walls than within, it is all too tempting to do some criminal act to return to a place where basic human needs are met.

One of the biggest obstacles to prisoner reintegration is that many employers and landlords want to have a criminal record check on file before offering work or a place to stay. As Public Safety Minister Bill Blair pointed out, a criminal record poses a stigma to further advancement long after the offender has paid a debt to society.

It was therefore good news when Bill C-31 was introduced in the House of Commons on June 10. The proposed legislation would undo some of the hardships imposed by the former Harper government: reducing the time for application for a pardon and reducing the fee prescribed for obtaining one.

The Harper government had increased the wait time from three to five years for a summary conviction offence and from five years to 10 years for indictable offences. Moreover, the fee was raised from $50 to $658. It was predictable that with the longer wait times and the expense in applying for those applications have dropped 57 per cent in the past decade.

Additionally, racialized and Indigenous communities who are overrepresented in the total number of offenders burdened with a criminal record are further marginalized in the housing and job market.

It would seem plain and obvious that the time for applying for a pardon and the cost associated in doing so must come down if we want a safer society.

Yet weaknesses have been pointed out in the bill. Senators Wanda Thomas Bernard, Josée Forest-Niesing and Kim Pate issued a joint press release. The senators point out that decreasing fees does not require legislation. Perhaps, they argue, all fees could be waived for those on social assistance. They further point out that Public Safety Canada and the House Public Safety Committee have already conducted consultations and have recommended automated record expiry.

The Parole Board of Canada has announced its intention to launch an online application portal so that those who qualify for a pardon and have demonstrated that have become law-abiding citizens can apply without the assistance of professionals. Of course, the pardon would not be for everyone who has served a sentence. Omitted from consideration would be persons with convictions for serious crimes such as terrorism or sexual offences against children. Those serving indeterminate sentences or life sentences would obviously be ineligible.

The question is, when will this legislation be passed? The House of Commons is scheduled to rise for summer recess on June 23. If the House is prorogued, the legislation could well die on the order paper. If there is a summer or fall election, the chances of its returning post-election and being given the priority consideration it deserves is questionable.

All political parties expound their desire for law and order. Yet when it comes to a measure such as Bill C-31 it will be interesting to note who speaks up for individuals to loosen the chokehold of a criminal record so that these individuals can meaningfully contribute to their families and their communities.

John L. Hill practised and taught prison law until his retirement. He holds a J.D. from Queen’s and LL.M. in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall. Contact him at johnlornehill@hotmail.com.

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