The federal government is looking at barring sex criminals from receiving pardons, or at least extending the time they would have to wait before applying.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Monday the government will seek ways to end “rubber-stamped” applications after revelations that sex-abusing hockey coach Graham James was pardoned by the National Parole Board.
But those who work with offenders say changing the law because of one rogue case is folly that will do more harm than good.
“I think we ought not be running around with our hair on fire every time an institution like the pardon system or the parole system doesn’t live up to our expectations,” said Craig Jones of the John Howard Society, which helps offenders readjust to society after release.
A pardon does not erase a person’s criminal record, but can make it easier for an ex-convict to get a job and travel abroad. In the case of sex offenders, a flag remains on the pardoned offender’s file, serving as an alert should they seek work with children or other vulnerable people.
Toews said he was surprised to learn that James, a former junior hockey coach, was granted a pardon from the parole board in 2007 for sexual assaults against two teens, including Sheldon Kennedy, who would go on to play in the National Hockey League.
“I think there needs to be a little more direction given to the board in terms of what they can consider overall, and that these things should not just be rubber-stamped,” Toews said Monday as outrage over the James pardon grew.
“We’re taking a look at the legislation to see how we can consider amending (it).”
The Canadian Press learned of the James pardon after a previously unknown accuser contacted Winnipeg police. There has been no public comment from James about the allegations, which have not yet led to formal complaint, and the disgraced coach’s current whereabouts are unknown.
The pardon sparked indignation across the country — from hockey parents to the Prime Minister’s Office.
A spokesman for Stephen Harper called it a “deeply troubling and gravely disturbing” development that demands an explanation from the parole board.
Though the board operates independently, it would be difficult for the government to claim complete ignorance of the pardon system.
The number of pardon applications has surged since the Conservatives took office, with the board issuing decisions in 40,428 cases in 2008-09 — up from 14,851 just two years earlier.
All but 800 of the more than 40,000 applications were approved last year.
The growth in applications is partly due to greater scrutiny of potential employees by government, private and voluntary sectors, says the board.
A key element of the current system originated with the Reform party, a forerunner of the Harper government.
In March 1997, Reform MP Chuck Strahl — now a Conservative cabinet minister — introduced a private-member’s bill that would allow sex offenders to continue to receive pardons but would still flag them in the police records system.
The Liberal government of Jean Chretien, after consulting the provinces and with the support of the Reform party, passed Bill C-7 in 1999, giving Strahl what he wanted.
All but a small segment of criminals, such as dangerous offenders and those serving life sentences, are eligible to apply for a pardon.
Convicts must wait either three or five years after a sentence has been served, depending on the severity of the crime. In weighing applications from people convicted of serious offences, the parole board is obliged to ensure the person has not reoffended and has displayed “good conduct.”
Toews suggested the government could decide to extend the waiting period for sex criminals or simply prohibit them from receiving pardons.
“I’m actually quite concerned about certain types of sex offenders getting pardons, especially pedophiles. In my opinion and in my experience, pedophiles are not easily cured,” Toews said.
Barring sex offenders from the pardon process gives them one less reason “to continue trying to live right,” said Andrew McWhinnie, head of Circles of Support and Accountability, an organization that tries to prevent sexual abusers from committing more crimes.
“They’ve hurt us in a very deep and personal way, people who have committed sex offences. But I think even at some point they too can be returned to society,” he said.
“Most sex offenders do not reoffend. Most sex offenders go on to lead productive lives.”
Restricting the pardon process because of the James case makes for poor policy, McWhinnie added.
“We can’t rejig an entire system that is working well because something happened that was objectionable.
“We have to move out of the pit of our stomach and into our heads, and think straight and do what’s right for the majority of people.”