OTTAWA— The Conservative government is pressing ahead with a plan to quadruple pardon applications fees despite the fact that 99 per cent of the respondents in its own consultations said it was a terrible idea — and an independent panel struck to review the decision sided against the Tories.
Out of the 1,086 responses the federal government received to its proposal to raise pardon user fees from $150 to $631, a total of 1,074 individuals and organizations disapproved saying it would amount to an undue financial burden and make it impossible for many offenders to obtain a pardon.
Only 12 respondents said they agreed with the Conservatives' plan.
St. Leonard’s Society of Canada called the move “dramatic” or “prohibitive” and said it “stems from a purely economic logic without regard for the needs of pardon applicants or the community.”
L’Association des services de rehabilitation du Québec said it would discourage people with a criminal record from applying for a pardon.
“Many people cannot afford the current application fees, so raising the cost will only result in pardons becoming more inaccessible to a majority of those with records, especially women who will be unable to afford to apply for a pardon,” Kim Pate of the Elizabeth Fry Society said.
Criminals who could not afford to apply for a pardon would be forced to rely on provincial or territorial social services to meet their needs, many groups and advocates for offenders said, because without a pardon most would be shut out from employment and education opportunities.
Even an Independent Advisory Panel — that included a member of the Parole Board — struck to review complaints about the Conservative government’s proposal said it also feared the proposed fee hike would have a punitive effect on many applicants.
“Regardless of their merits or good behavour, theose who do not have the means to pay such an amount would be doubly penalized,” their June report, which was tabled in Parliament this week, states.
The panel recommended the government maintain the $150 fee and give the Parole Board more resources to function properly.
Of the 12 respondents who favoured the federal government’s decision, many said they believed law-abiding citizens should not subsidize pardons.
The federal government, however, said the proposed $631 fee was needed because a new law, C-23A designed to limit pardons for serious crimes, passed in 2010 made the pardon process more complex, creating a backlog and longer processing times.
“Due to the increase in program costs, without a change in the pardon fee system, the demand for pardon application processing will exceed the Board’s capacity to supply pardons with proper oversight,” a user fee proposal written on behalf of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews states.
The $631 is designed to cover the increase costs associated with the bill's changes and is expected to bring in $9,470,694 in 2011-2012.
Toews suggested the fact a number of criminals currently use third party companies to prepare their applications shows some are willing to incur a greater expense in order to obtain a pardon.
According to government figures, approximately 10 per cent of Canadians, over three million, have criminal records and 1.5 million are eligible to apply for a pardon. The number of those eligible grows by about 60,000 annually.
An open criminal record can limit employment and educational opportunities, restrict travel, housing and rental accommodations. It can also limit the job prospects for other family members.
The pardon process was designed to shed shame and stigma attached to having a criminal record, freeing offenders from the limitations of a conviction and helping the long-term rehabilitation of individuals — something the government says it is still committed to.
For more than 14 years, requesting a pardon cost $50 but after the Tories passed C-23A they hiked the fee to $150 in 2010.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that the government planned to quadruple parole applications fees.
Althia Raj is Ottawa bureau chief for The Huffington Post Canada, follow her on Twitter @althiaraj