In reality, how many of us have done silly – albeit illegal – things, made rash decisions or even committed a more serious crime in a moment of insanity? Most of us have not always lived in perfect adherence to the rule of law. Many don’t get caught, but those that do may end up with a criminal record. The majority of offenders are otherwise ordinary people who made a mistake. Escaping from such an error, however, is often a lot more difficult than most of us realize.
Anyone convicted of a crime in our society has a price to pay, but that price is not always limited to the sentence handed down by a court. When someone is charged with a crime in Canada, a criminal record is preserved through the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC), a computer database maintained by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The name and date of birth of the accused individual is kept on file, along with a fingerprint record. This database, which includes records of convictions and a breadth of additional information, is available to all local law enforcement agencies across the country. Moreover, U.S. officials have restricted access to the database when a Canadian seeks to enter the United States. Unless formal steps are taken to obtain a pardon/record suspension, the information contained in the database can have lifelong consequences.
All too often, the long-term repercussions of a criminal conviction are far worse than the actual sentence imposed by the court. A young girl caught shoplifting a pair of gloves might face a fine of $500 and three months’ probation.
Sadly, that’s hardly the end of the affair. Her ability to land a good paying job may be compromised, and she could face decades of embarrassment and stress.
Consider the woman who drank too much one night and got into a bar fight. Now, 10 years later, she can’t land a job, even though she learned from her mistake and has since led an exemplary life. Then there’s the young father who stole groceries to feed his family. He can’t find employment anyplace, not even in a factory or a call center. Another person, in the throes of addiction, stooped to selling drugs. That was years ago, and he (or she) has since lived a clean and sober life, but can’t go visit a dying relative in New York – all because of the past mistake.
Unfortunately, these stories are all too common. Some of them arise from a moment of youthful indiscretion. For instance, a teenager in a drug store might have slipped a packet of condoms into his pocket, too shy to bring them to the check out counter. Now, he can’t get into a university program.
For all of these people, promises of a bright future have been traded for raised eyebrows during interviews and awkward pauses when disclosure is necessary. Those affected appear destined to a lifetime of feeble excuses about why a job was given to another applicant, continual rejections from memberships and associations, ongoing anxiety and painful indecision about disclosing past convictions. They face proverbial kicks to the gut, over and over again.
Many criminalized people have long since satisfied their sentence and have struggled to reintegrate themselves into society in order to move forward with their lives. While a few have succeeded; many are stuck in an unending middle ground, having paid their debt to society but unable to get past the labels levied upon them. It is pretty well impossible to ‘reintegrate’ if one can’t get a job, or become rehabilitated if not given a meaningful chance to do better. It is a vicious cycle.
Many offenders can’t even rent a decent apartment, done in by the landlord’s insistence on a criminal background check. The father who stole groceries to feed his family still can’t find a job or get a modest apartment, even years after his conviction. He and others like him are stuck in a vicious cycle.
Realistically, it would make much more sense if convictions for most summary offences, especially in the case of first time offenders, were sealed two or three years after the completion of a sentence, provided the offender kept the peace and behaved lawfully. This would save money, time, bureaucratic paperwork, and unnecessary emotional trauma. People would be restored to employable status again and, fueled by hope, would have greater incentive not to re-offend. Our current archaic, punitive system really only succeeds in creating despair and toxic shame.
Unfortunately, the law has regressed recently. In 2010, the government overreacted to one sad circumstance. A repeat sex offender was awarded a pardon, only to offend again. The political response placed votes ahead of logic. Waiting times for a Pardon/Record Suspension were jacked up from three to five years for a summary conviction and from five to ten years for an indictable offense. The pardon processing fee was increased from $150 to a whopping $630.
This political reaction, which was really a calculated effort from those in power to save face and gain voter confidence, has only served to make a bad situation excruciatingly worse for the majority of criminalized Canadians trying to get their lives together. For the handful of hardened criminals this measure was designed to target, thousands of decent people have been denied a timely and essential opportunity to repair their lives and start fresh.
How would that same shoplifter who initially stole because he couldn’t afford to feed his family, and now can’t get a job because of his record, ever be able to come up with $630.00 to apply for a record suspension so he can finally get a job?
Hopefully legislative reform will address this repressive measure in order to make second chances more accessible. In the meantime, the only real relief from the ordeal of living with a criminal record is to apply for a Formal Record Suspension. Notwithstanding the extended delay and increased cost, the freedom of never again having to sweat out a job interview or be disqualified from opportunities; and the freedom to go where any free person may go without restriction or rejection may be well worth the investment.