That the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security be instructed to undertake a study of the Record Suspension Program to: (a) examine the impact of a record suspension to help those with a criminal record reintegrate into society; (b) examine the impact of criminal record suspension fees and additional costs associated with the application process on low-income applicants; (c) identify appropriate changes to fees and service standards for record suspensions; (d) identify improvements to better support applicants for a criminal record suspension; and that the Committee present its final report and recommendations to the House within nine months of the adoption of this motion.
Mr. Speaker, before I start, my thoughts and prayers are with my riding, Saint John—Rothesay, and the devastating flood we are continuing to experience right now.
I believe we have all made mistakes in our lives, and I do believe in second chances, when they are deserved. I would like to believe we live in a society that can forgive when such forgiveness is shown to be merited. Sometimes, often early in life, mistakes can lead to a criminal record. When a mistake is properly addressed, it is best for everyone, both the offenders and the society they live in, to move on. As a society, we need to be able to provide deserving citizens with a second chance. Unfortunately, for many Canadians, especially those in low-income situations, the criminal justice system often fails to provide this second chance.
Let me give an example provided by the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saint John. A single mother in Saint John, let us call her Susan, a young woman with an excellent work record, was offered five well-paying jobs over a six-month period. These offers were all rescinded when it was revealed that Susan had a summary offence on her record. She stole a pair of jeans in 1998, her one and only offence. Now Susan cannot find quality employment, and she cannot afford the cost of a criminal record suspension.
Intergenerational poverty is a chronic condition that affects far too many citizens in my riding. Since I was elected, I have made it my top priority to represent everyone, all citizens in my community, including and especially the most vulnerable and under-represented, the ones who need a voice, in particular people in poverty.
To address this problem, I have advocated and will continue to advocate for programs and policy changes that would help lift people out of poverty. Through programs such as the Canada child benefit, the Canada workers benefit, and the implementation of a national housing strategy, our government has made tremendous strides toward eradicating poverty in Saint John—Rothesay and across the country. However, we can still do much more.
Past offenders, who are vastly more likely to live in or come from poverty than those without criminal records, still face an often insurmountable socio-economic barrier to re-entry into the workforce and, thus, escaping poverty. A criminal record check is a prerequisite for most jobs. Indeed, in one study undertaken by the John Howard Society of Canada, 60% of respondents reported that a criminal record check was an essential prerequisite to employment at their place of work. Many past offenders, like Susan, cannot afford the $631, the cost of filing an application, although it may not seem like a lot of money to many people.
Acting on calls to action by the John Howard Society of Saint John and the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saint John, I have tabled private member's Motion No. 161, which instructs the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security to undertake a review of the criminal record suspension program. This would determine how the program impacts low-income offenders at present and how it could be changed to better facilitate their reintegration into society.
Many past offenders have paid their debt to society. They are seeking to reintegrate into our communities. They are trying to give themselves and their families better futures. They ought to be able to apply for and obtain meaningful employment, regardless of their means. Past offenders who are unable to find work are much more likely to reoffend, interacting with the criminal justice system all over again. In this sense, ensuring that past offenders are enabled to apply for and obtain gainful employment is crucial. This is not only part of an effective strategy to eradicate poverty in our community; it is key to combatting crime and keeping our streets safe.
To grow our communities, create more well-paying jobs, and ensure that communities across Canada are a safe place to live for everyone, we, as a government, must do everything in our power to break down the barriers faced by those currently living in poverty.
In 2012, the previous government passed amendments to the Criminal Records Act that dramatically altered the application process for what were then called “pardons”. The term “pardon” was changed to “record suspension”. This change was clearly made in an effort to make the process more punitive.
Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, explains the difference between pardon and record suspension: “Pardon indicates that someone has moved on from where they were, not just that we're hanging it [the suspension] over your head like a big dagger about to drop down on you if we perceive you've done something wrong.”
Pardon was replaced by record suspension. The goal of record suspension, and the policies that came with it, was to be publicly tough on crime. This unexamined toughness legislation was rammed through roughshod by the previous government and imposed on an already troubled pardons system. This toughness has had unintended negative consequences on Canadian society: legally, socially, and economically.
Here is what the previous government did to the pardon process: The base fee was quadrupled to $631, and wait times for pardon eligibility were increased from three to five years for a summary offence and from five to 10 years for an indictable offence.
The results of this unexamined policy initiative, this tough-on-crime pose of the previous government, were telling. In 2011, the Parole Board of Canada received 29,829 pardon applications. After the changes were made, in 2015, it received 12,743 requests for record suspension, down by 57%. That is 17,086 fewer requests. Did crime change over those five years? I do not think so. This unfortunate policy shift actively and demonstrably discouraged Canadians, particularly low-income Canadians, such as those from Saint John—Rothesay, from seeking a pardon.
The Parole Board says that pardons are designed to support rehabilitation and reintegration into the community. This dramatic drop in requests for record suspensions is a strong warning. Current government policy on pardons is moving in the opposite direction of rehabilitation and reintegration. Those 17,086 people, the 57% drop in applicants in 2015, are not reintegrated; they are not participating in the workforce.
Former offenders are often low-income Canadians, people who are statistically much more likely to tum to crime if they cannot get a job. Approximately 3.8 million Canadians have a criminal record, but very few eligible parties apply for a record suspension. Fewer than 11% of those convicted of crimes have been granted a pardon or a record suspension. We should not be putting roadblocks in the way of reintegration and rehabilitation.
As Dr. Mary Ann Campbell, director of the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies at the University of New Brunswick, explained, pardons have an important societal function. She said that research on record suspensions indicates that individuals who are granted record suspensions typically have a very low rate, under 5%, of subsequent criminal behaviour, and that record suspensions are likely to open doors for past offenders and justice-involved persons. These doors “support their pro-social lifestyle transitions” and raise families out of poverty.
For many low-income Canadians, pursuing a record suspension is a step in the right direction. We need to look carefully at the roadblocks our current system is putting in the way of the rehabilitation and reintegration of these less fortunate citizens.
If passed, Motion No. 161 would instruct the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security to undertake a study on the record suspension system in Canada, in particular on how it affects low-income applicants. The committee would be instructed to study how the system could be improved to remove barriers to the reintegration of past offenders into society. The committee would report back to the House with its findings within nine months.
A life sentence of poverty for a summary offence is an extremely unreasonable punishment, yet this is what the record suspension system as it currently stands imposes upon far too many Canadians. The stories of young adults especially, who come into my riding office, are heartbreaking regarding the barriers that the system places on them. This is especially true for women, who most often bear the burden of child care and family support costs, and tend to apply for jobs in sectors that require criminal record checks more often than do men. The barriers to employment created by the record suspension program also disproportionately impact historically marginalized groups, such as indigenous Canadians, who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.
The current system of record suspension takes a terrible toll on low-income Canadians, exacerbating the difficulties of some of our most vulnerable citizens. A recent poverty round table in my riding of Saint John—Rothesay, part of the federal tackling poverty together project, identified criminal records as a significant barrier to employment and a contributing factor to long-term poverty. As Dr. Campbell explained, “Individuals who have a criminal record are often blocked from adequate and meaningful employment, as many employers require criminal record checks and are reluctant to hire people with a record. By maximizing a person's opportunities for employment by suspending a criminal record for those eligible individuals, Canada is positively contributing to reductions in poverty.”
Judy Murphy of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saint John echoes these concerns, spelling out the implications of the current record suspension system on poverty, specifically on low-income women. She said, “Saint John has the highest rates of single-parent families living in poverty with a female head of the household in Canada. Over two-thirds of incarcerated women are single mothers to children under 18 years of age. On a regular basis, we hear of women being turned down for meaningful work at decent wages because of a criminal record. The current high cost of applying for a record suspension is beyond the reach of a single mother on social assistance. The long waiting period to be eligible for applying keeps a woman out of employment and the opportunity to maintain essential workplace skills. If a woman is in a position to submit an application, the review time by the Parole Board of Canada can take between six months and two years. Although this is Saint John's story, we recognize that the barriers created by the current record suspension system are told over and over again across Canada.”
Ms. Murphy endorses this motion, adding the following: “We support the need to explore the effect of the high costs on applicants, and to create a service standard that allows a record suspension process that minimizes wait times and costs, and magnifies ease of application.”
Motion No. 161 would instruct the public safety committee to undertake this examination of the high costs on applicants, look at minimizing wait times, and examine the application process for a record suspension and its impact on low-income Canadians.
Bill Bastarache, executive director of the John Howard Society of New Brunswick, also supports Motion No. 161, giving it the following endorsement: “The John Howard Society of New Brunswick promotes effective, just, and humane responses to the causes and consequences of crime. We greatly appreciate your commitment to identifying and addressing barriers to vulnerable populations, ensuring each citizen is provided with an opportunity to move forward.”
The current system needs to change these shortcomings. We need to give those who deserve it a real second chance. When a Canadian who has been involved with the criminal justice system is rehabilitated and reintegrated as a productive and thriving member of our society, everybody wins. We are better as a country for it, and certainly my riding of Saint John—Rothesay would be better for these changes.