Tories revamp pardon system

OTTAWA — New federal legislation introduced by the government on Tuesday would do away with pardons for criminals and replace them with harder-to-get ”record suspensions.”

OTTAWA — New federal legislation introduced by the government on Tuesday would do away with pardons for criminals and replace them with harder-to-get ”record suspensions.”

Some criminals, those convicted of sex crimes against children or those with three or more serious convictions, won’t even be allowed to apply for such a suspension.

”It’s not the state’s business to be in the forgiveness business,” said Public Safety Minister Vic Toews as he outlined the proposed legislation.

”The current system of pardons implies that what the person did is somehow OK, or is forgiven or that the harm done has somehow disappeared. Our government disagrees.”

Under the new legislation, people convicted of minor crimes will have to wait five years before applying for a record suspension and those guilty of more serious offences will have to wait 10 years.

As well, it will be up to the criminal to demonstrate that a record suspension would contribute to his or her rehabilitation.

Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society, called it a rush to judgment.

He said there may be a case for a review of pardons and parole, but it should be done slowly and carefully, by panels of experts, not by ”short-term-oriented, hair-on-fire opportunists.”

The legislation follows a public uproar that began when The Canadian Press revealed that hockey coach Graham James had obtained a pardon in 2007 after he was convicted for sexual assaults against two teens, including Sheldon Kennedy, who went on to play in the National Hockey League.

“The pardon of convicted sex offender Graham James was deeply offensive to Canadians, to victims and to our government,” Toews said. ”It demonstrated the need to take action to prevent such an outrage from happening again.”

James pleaded guilty in 1997 to sexually assaulting two of his former teenaged players over a 10-year period and was banned for life from coaching by the Canadian Hockey Association. He was last known to be coaching hockey in Spain in 2001.

The CBC was to air an interview with James on Wednesday, but Kennedy said he’s unfazed at the prospect of seeing it.

He said he’s spoken to the reporter who conducted the conversation.

”It’ll be interesting.”

”You get to a point where part of moving on in your life, where that individual doesn’t have the power over you any more,” he said.

”There would have been a time in my life if that interview had come up that I would have been a little skittish in my boots just to see it.”

Another former NHLer, Theoren Fleury, lodged a formal complaint with Winnipeg police in January alleging he, too, was abused by James when he was in junior hockey.

”I know there’s more than Theoren that has filed a complaint and I guess we’re going to have to see how that plays out,” Kennedy said.

News of the James pardon prompted an Easter weekend phone call to Toews from Prime Minister Stephen Harper with an order to revamp the system quickly.

Harper subsequently noted that sex killer Karla Homolka would be eligible to apply for a pardon this year.

Toews said if the new legislation passes before Homolka applies, she will be subject to the 10-year rule, which would put off her eligibility to 2015.

Jones of the John Howard Society, said Toews and Harper are using scare tactics.

“You conjoin the two names, Graham James and Karla Homolka, you raise the level of fear and alarm and then you pretend to ride in on your white horse and say, ’We’re saving the day.”’

While condemning the present system, Toews didn’t mention that the number of pardon applications has surged since the Conservatives took office, with the parole 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.

A key element of the current system actually 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 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 sought.

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