Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise to say a few words on Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Criminal Records Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.
I want to start with an anecdote and history in Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe. My uncle was a member of this House. He also was a provincial court judge for over 35 years. He had the nickname of “Hanging Henry”. One might think he was hard on law and order stuff, but over the years I have come to know many people who appeared in front of him as young offenders, as first-time offenders. They told me or members of my family that Judge Henry gave them a chance. He was stern and scared the living daylights out of them, but he gave them an opportunity to change their lives around because they faced the wall of justice and an uncertain future because of that. Because of the harshness and the severity of that wall of justice, many of those people are very important and contributing members of society.
That is the preamble to what we should be thinking about in terms of the pardon process. Less than a month ago, the Minister of Public Safety introduced this bill. It is another of the Conservatives' criminal justice pieces that was proposed with much fanfare, but it has been relatively unexamined. Of course, the purpose of the House of Commons is to look at bills in their first blush, send them to committees where they will be studied with the aid of testimony from witnesses, not just experts, but ordinary people who come forward like many of the people who appeared in front of my uncle over 35 years to say that they were given a chance and thank goodness, because now they are fathers or mothers and contribute to society, have jobs and so on.
The full effects of the bill will be clearly looked at in committee, but in short, the eliminating pardons for serious crimes act would amend the Criminal Records Act to substitute the word “pardon” with the more defined “record suspension”. As Canadians have been made aware, in cases of individuals convicted of sexual offences perpetrated on children, this bill would also prohibit pardons or record suspensions. Repeat offenders have also been targeted in the bill such that record suspensions or pardons would be restricted and the waiting period between parole and eligibility for record suspension would be extended.
Finally, regular reports to the Minister of Public Safety from the National Parole Board would be instituted.
At present, a pardon permits a Canadian citizen convicted of a criminal offence who has completed his or her sentence to have his or her criminal record kept separate. By and large, all the applications received by the National Parole Board are granted. Of particular note as the House proceeds forward with the debate on this bill is the fact that since 1970, the year when major amendments were made to the Criminal Code, 96% of all pardons granted are still in effect. That is an important underlying fact to the debate here and the debate that will take place at committee. Ninety-six per cent of all pardons granted since 1970 remain in effect. This means, again subject to the test of the evidence at committee, that only 4% of the people have had pardons, record suspensions, withdrawn.
We might say that the system is working because the pardon granted has allowed individuals to pursue a life that at least is not so derelict of following the law that they had their pardon revoked. Virtually all citizens who receive a pardon do not recommit crimes in their community or elsewhere.
Nevertheless, news headlines of late have attempted to paint a picture where Canada enables continued crime through the doling out of pardons. The impression by the ongoing Conservative manipulation of public sentiment machine would have people believe that pardons are being thrown out of a truck on side streets and everybody who gets a pardon then goes out and commits a crime and does not merit these pardons. It does not seem to be the case. As the research has shown, the continued existence of pardons in the Canadian justice system is not reason for the continuation of crime in our communities.
Let us examine the objectives in reality of the pardon system as they are today. The bill's introduction is very recent. By my calculation, around June 23 the government will have been in power for about four and a half years. In a normal person's lifetime, four and a half years is a significant period. It could be a period of raising a child from infancy to young childhood. It could be a period of important progress in one's working career. In this environment of perpetual electioneering, one would expect the government to be well on its way with its agenda.
Given that in the 4.5 year range, we have only heard about pardons now, we would have to conclude that this has not been on the radar screen for the government. The government has not really brought it up before; therefore, it has not been a priority. We could say with a liberal interpretation of timing and its agenda that it brought up other justice bills before this and attempted to move them forward.
There are earnest justice-doers on the other side. Sadly, their feet were taken out from other them with the continual prorogation of Parliament. Bills go to the bottom of the list and have to come up through the system again. It is a shame. It is a waste of time. For serious legislation to be delayed by the electioneering and prorogation that takes place in our political system is something that another House or a committee on another day may and should look at.
Pardons were not a hot priority for the government in four and a half years. It is important to examine the very nature behind pardons in Canada. Pardons allow people who have been convicted of a criminal offence, completed their sentence and demonstrated they are law-abiding citizens to have their criminal record kept separate and apart from other criminal records.
Why is that important? It is important for people to get rehabilitated and for those who have been rehabilitated to reintegrate into the community. We cannot go through every pardon that has been given, but if 96% of the pardons that have been given have been given to people who have not reoffended, one has to think that they are not breaking laws and that the pardons have probably permitted them to reintegrate into society in a better way.
How is that so? Again, without the benefit of the evidence, which is why we are sending it to committee, one would expect that when a person applies for a job, a 10- or 15-year-old criminal conviction might stand in the way of an employer hiring that person. The Criminal Records Act and National Parole Board may currently issue, grant, deny and revoke pardons for convictions under the regulations and federal acts of Canada. Under that power, only 4% of pardons since 1970 have been revoked.
What we do not have a real thorough grasp on, and I am sure the committee will do its due diligence and find this out, is how many are currently issued, granted and denied. We would perhaps like to know whether the denials are given with reasons or for reasons that make sense in our interpretation of criminal law and are in consonance with our principles of rehabilitation. I think we would all like to know that. We would benefit from this. However, as I say, this is really the first time this topic has come up in this House.
The aim here is to give convicted offenders the chance to reform their lives and return as citizens with respect for the law. For example, the pardon system can often allow offenders to find employment even when criminal background checks are performed. This is not to undermine the safety of Canadians but to ensure that reformed individuals can reintegrate into society.
What seems to be missing in a lot of the Conservative justice agenda is that if we put convicted criminals away for a long time, society will be safer, but for how long? That is the key issue and the fundamental difference between the lock-them-up-out-of-sight-for-a-long-time theory of reintegration of offenders to the reality that most offenders eventually get out.
The question for the security of the public is: What kind of individual do we want coming out after a sentence ends? A five year term will end. It may end sooner rather than later but it will end after five years. Do we want a person coming out who has put a modicum of effort toward rehabilitation? Do we want that person to get a job and be reintegrated into the taxpaying workforce? I would hope the answer from all sides would be yes.
The pardon system as it works now seems to work in that direction. A pardon presently removes all information pertaining to particular convictions from the Canadian Police Information Centre, or CPIC, as anybody involved with the law and police forces of this country would know it as. What does it show on CPIC? Is the individual's record on CPIC? Only the Minister of Public Safety has the authority to disclose this information.
While a pardon under the Criminal Records Act affects records in federal departments and agencies, provincial and municipal law enforcement officials generally co-operate with any restrictions to accessing records.
With particular relevance to the bill before us, sexual offenders may presently receive pardons but the offender's name will remain on the National Sex Offender Registry. To illustrate some of the points that brought this to the attention of the government and of the House, a sex offender will always be part of a National Sex Offender Registry.
A debate is now going on in this country as to how well the registry is working. Every community, village, town, city, region, province and county have raised concerns about the level of awareness citizens have with respect to a convicted sexual offender and his or her inter-relationship with the National Sex Offender Registry. However, we are not talking about that here. We are talking about pardons and this is a difference that should be highlighted because the government should be moving with all haste to examine as well, maybe on a corollary basis, the National Sex Offender Registry system to see how it is working or not.
Highly important is understanding that pardons carry no international recognition and areas under foreign control may disregard the consequences of a pardon here in Canada. That situation sometimes arises with respect to our largest neighbour and biggest trading partner to the south where pardons are recognized out of order. Convictions are not masked at American borders. We often have members of the House from all parties pleading for constituents who are truck drivers trying to get across the border with a record of conviction from many years in the past, and certainly in their past intellectually because they now contribute to society.
Regarding the application process for pardons, the National Parole Board has the final say on which applicant gets a pardon and which one does not. One important point is that even if the individual's application is denied, the individual can reapply annually.
I would like to highlight a number of statistics released by the National Parole Board. These are the most recent we have but I am sure the committee will be more specific in its questioning of National Parole Board officials. In 2009-10, 24,000 pardons were granted and a mere 425 were denied. We do not know why but it would be interesting to ask the witnesses at committee why pardons were denied. In the last five years, almost 112,000 people were pardoned. That is a significant figure considering the population of our country.
The key item that must be acknowledged again is that 96% of all pardons are still in force. One would have to review that on an objective basis as being a tremendous success rate. It clearly denotes the percentage of recipients who remain crime-free. Is that not the objective of all our criminal justice legislation? This low revocation rate of pardons has been largely attributed to the significant waiting periods required under the existing framework for eligibility.
I certainly see the cause for criticism over the number of applications approved by the National Parole Board but we should hesitate to claim the approval of a pardon as a mere rubber-stamp process.
The developments of more recent years that I want to address derive from 2006 when the then minister of public safety examined the pardon system and proposed no significant changes. That was then. Now it is a big concern. Today the government now appears to feel that a substantial overhaul is warranted. What has changed between the then minister of public safety's review in 2006 and now?
Could it be that the Conservatives are reacting as a government to some highly salacious, high-profile instances in a system that serves about 100,000 applications in the last 5 years, and I will be conservative with the figures, of some 25,000 applications a year? It wants to change the system based on 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 highly publicized cases, cases that bring us, as members of Parliament and right-thinking people, to a conclusion that those persons should not even be able to apply for pardon and certainly should not get a pardon.
Do we do that in our real life? Do we taken 1 case out of 25,000 and say that everything has to be changed right away, especially when we look at it as a House or at least as the government did some 3 or 4 years ago and said that everything was fine? There must have been a reason why everything was fine in 2006 and now it is awful. We would like to know that at committee, which is why we will support sending it to committee.
The changes that make for the most debate in this House would be whether we should change the name from “pardon” to “record suspension”. I think that is a flip of the coin. As long as people know that “record suspension” means “pardon” and it will not deter people from applying and will not bring different results from the same process, I am not sure there is much to be added or gained by the change of terms.
There seems to be a heavy moral element to it. People are used to the term “pardon”, but is it really a “pardon”? It is not society saying that it forgives people for everything they have done that is under the rubric of this offence, It is just saying that their record will be kept in a separate area and not be used against them if they apply for a job to get reintegrated into the community. Maybe the label is accurate.
Why was that not done in 2006? Why has it not been done before? I would like to hear from Public Safety officials as to the history of the term “pardon” and the history of the term “record suspension”.
Many of us will know the aspect of the bill championed above all else by the government has been the amendment to make those convicted of more than three indictable crimes or of sexual offences against minors ineligible for a pardon.
I am a parent of three young girls, so I may have a bias in this chamber, but I personally do not have a real problem with a pardon not being considered for a person who has been convicted of a sexual offence against a minor. I am not speaking for my party nor am I speaking for members of the committee but that is something that must be looked at by the committee and every member of the House has to come to some reckoning on it.
With respect to the three indictable offences, everybody thinks indictable offences are the most serious and most egregious. This is where I call for discretion in the system because my old Uncle Henry had it and he saved a lot of people, I think, by being stern with them but giving them an out, giving them a chance to rehabilitate.
I am sure the committee will hear an instance of a person who has three indictable offence convictions who is probably able to be reintegrated or has and received a pardon and did very well by it. I do not know, because this is all before the evidence comes into play.
On a similar note, for record suspensions the bill would increase the period of ineligibility to five years for summary conviction offences and ten years for indictable offences. In summary, that is a way of looking tougher but will it be more efficacious?
Ninety-six percent of people do not reoffend. The system is not that loosey-goosey. There are a significant number of years before a person can even apply for a pardon and many of the pardons that are given are given on the basis of the facts put very up very steadfastly by the National Parole Board and other people.
We will send this to committee. I am not sure that this is not just a knee-jerk reaction to some very egregious headlines about Graham James, et cetera. However, anybody who stands in this House and says that if members are not for this bill they are for Graham James getting a pardon, that is illogical and it is wrong.
We all want to protect society but let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater if the pardon system as we know it for the vast majority of applicants is working. If it works for them and gets them back into society, it works for society, which is us.