10/06/2011 01:06 EDT | Updated 12/06/2011 05:12 EST

Victims' advocates support government's planned pardon fee increase

OTTAWA - Ordinary Canadians shouldn't have to subsidize the cost of criminal pardon applications, say victims' advocates.

Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, who was sexually abused as a teenager, told the Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs Thursday that a proposed quadrupling of the application fee is fully justified.

Victims, often struggling with emotional issues and drug or alcohol abuse, must find thousands of dollars for treatment to deal with their trauma, said Kennedy.

"Offenders serve their time and get a subsidized pardon."

Criminals make a choice when they break the law and should cover the cost of seeking a pardon, said Sharon Rosenfeldt, co-founder of Victims of Violence. "It is called taking personal responsibility."

The testimony followed equally impassioned arguments at the committee from those who steadfastly oppose a fee increase.

A law passed last year — after revelations that Kennedy's abuser, hockey coach Graham James, had received a pardon — requires the parole board to thoroughly examine the behaviour of applicants who apply.

It means scrutiny of pardon applications, once largely a matter of checking paperwork, have become much more labour-intensive and costly. As a result, the government wants to hike the cost of seeking a pardon to $631 from the current $150.

A public consultation process under the User Fees Act last spring overwhelmingly criticized the planned increase, including surprisingly negative responses from federal organizations such as the RCMP, Justice Department and Public Safety Canada.

Victims' advocates said Thursday the consultation was flawed because they didn't even know about it.

At the committee Wednesday, Conservative Sen. Don Meredith rejected a suggestion from Kim Pate, whose organization helps imprisoned women, that the pardon fee should remain at $150, with the state picking up any additional cost.

"When you look at the cost of keeping individuals in our institutions, wouldn't you say the state has paid a lot of monies already? And that on an increase in the (pardon application) fees, that is a small amount on what has been paid (to incarcerate the person)?" asked Meredith.

Francois Berard of the Association of Social Rehabilitation Services of Quebec could barely conceal his anger.

He sarcastically pointed to the government's expenditure of "hundreds of millions" of dollars on prison construction at a time of deficits. "Are they going to contribute to the deficit? I guess not."

Meredith was not deterred.

"The state has already paid a lot."

The government's news release on the fee increase appeared to suggest there was a punitive element to the proposed new cost, said Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

"The sentence is the punishment."

Pate said nowhere in the User Fees Act does it say charges can be used as a punitive measure, and that may form the basis of a court challenge.

Pate, in her initial address to the Senate committee, referred to the Graham James story:

"This seems to have been driven by one case, one very public case."

Conservative Sen. Bob Runciman later came back to this point: "That one case really shone a light on a rubber-stamp process that was granting 98, 99 per cent of applications."

But Pate didn't back down. She said the only people who apply are those who know they are eligible — it is a self-selecting group so of course most will be accepted.

Pate also said that if cost-cutting is the government's main preoccupation, then the simplest and cheapest solution is the process in Australia. After five, 10 or 15 years without criminal charge or interaction with the law, an offender there is automatically granted a pardon.

The federal move to increase the fee coincides with new provisions under a massive crime bill that would further tighten the process — prohibiting anyone with more than three indictable convictions from ever being eligible for a pardon.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews stressed Thursday that the rule only applies to convictions for which a person is sentenced to two or more years in federal penitentiary.

"There comes a point in time when society simply says, 'No, that's quite enough,'" he told the Commons justice committee Thursday.

He noted that a series of multiple break-and-enters, for instance, might result in a three-year cumulative sentence. But since no single conviction resulted in a two-year term, none of the crimes would be counted as a strike under the pardon changes.

"We've drawn a very clear line and think Canadians would agree with that position," said Toews.

Later, in response to questions about another area of law, Toews' laid out the Conservatives' broad view of Canada's criminal justice system.

"We have a system that has been consistently focused on the interests of the criminal, as opposed to the victims," said Toews.