In this article, you will get all the information regarding Peter McKnight: Stigma of a criminal record keeps offenders from reintegrating into society

Opinion: Instead of requiring a cumbersome application for a record suspension, the government could automatically grant a pardon after a period of time, provided the person has stayed out of trouble

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“If anyone be caught committing sacrilege … let his offence be written on his face and his hands.” — Plato, The Laws

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In ancient Greece, people accused of offences could be subject to “stizo” — the tattooing, often on their faces, of the crimes for which they were accused. This involuntary tattoo, which marked them forever as undesirable, gave us our modern concept of stigma.

Of course, we no longer believe in branding people for their criminal acts. We believe that offenders ought to serve their sentences, and once completed, we guarantee that they will not be punished again for the same offence.

We call that guarantee a protection against double jeopardy. The principle stretches back at least to the eighth century BC, and was recognized in classical antiquity — including, incidentally, in ancient Greece — and in canon law.

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The right not to be tried or punished twice for the same offence is now enshrined in laws around the world, and is recognized in many international human rights statutes. Rarely can you find a legal principle so widely respected throughout the world and throughout time.

In Canada, the right is constitutionally protected by s.11(h) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but there is a sense in which that protection is effectively illusory. That’s because, as it turns out, we do believe in branding offenders — sometimes forever.

The brand, in this case, is a digital one: a criminal record. Even after completing all elements of the sentences, offenders are still stigmatized with a record, something that can adversely affect their ability to obtain housing, education, employment and volunteer work.

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In other words, the record — the stigma — impairs offenders’ efforts to reintegrate into society, and by limiting employment, education and housing, increases the risk of their reoffending. This affects more than a few people: Nearly four million — or one in nine — Canadians currently have a record.

People can apply for a record suspension (pardon), which doesn’t erase the record, but rather sets it aside so it doesn’t appear in a search of the Central Police Information Computer. But getting a pardon is a lot easier said than done.

Normally, we think of offenders as having paid their debt to society when they have completed all elements of their sentences: jail time, probation or parole, paying fines and making restitution.

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But when it comes to receiving a pardon, that’s only the beginning. After all elements of the sentence are completed — after the debt to society is paid in full — the person must wait five to 10 years, depending on the offence, and can then apply for a pardon.

The Parole Board of Canada can take another year to decide the fate of the applicant, which means it is often more than a decade after the sentence is completed before a pardon is finally granted.

That’s not all it takes. A mandatory fee of $50 must accompany the application, and applicants also need to shell out more money for necessary documents, including a certified criminal record and fingerprints. Due to the complexity of the application process, many applicants pay private companies hundreds or thousands of dollars for their assistance.

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Of course many people, especially those whose employment is restricted due to their criminal record, can’t afford to apply, and hence they abandon the process. So the stigma lasts forever.

And for what? Research demonstrates that a criminal record doesn’t tell us who will make a good employee or tenant, and after about five years, the risk of offenders committing further offences is not much different from the risk of anyone else getting into trouble.

Ottawa evidently recognizes the need for reform given that it reduced the application fee this year from $658 to $50, and given recent changes to simplify the process of receiving a pardon for cannabis possession offences. But even for cannabis offences, the government still requires people to apply.

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Fortunately, there is an alternative to this costly, cumbersome, counterproductive process. The government could automatically grant a pardon after a period of time, provided the person has stayed out of trouble.

This alternative — known as a “spent regime” — is used in a number of countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia. The Fresh Start Coalition, an alliance of Canadian community organizations, also supports implementation of automatic record suspensions.

While Ottawa has said automatic pardons are difficult to implement since the records are stored in different ways by different police services, Canada does use a spent regime for youth records.

Further, since a suspension doesn’t erase the record, it can still be accessed for certain purposes — for example, to conduct a “vulnerable sector” check when someone is applying to work with children or adults with disabilities.

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A spent regime would therefore retain the safety features present in the current system, while enhancing community safety by helping offenders to reintegrate and find employment and housing. And by ending the practice of punishing offenders twice, it would reaffirm our commitment to protecting Canadians against double jeopardy.

One final thing: The ancient Greek practice of stigmatizing offenders didn’t apply to everyone. The Greeks only stigmatized those who were disadvantaged: non-citizens, indentured labourers, and enslaved people.

Our current system has a similar effect, as it disproportionately affects members of disadvantaged groups, including those disadvantaged by race, ethnic origin, mental illness and low income. Surely we can do better than that.

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Peter McKnight: Stigma of a criminal record keeps offenders from reintegrating into society

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