The first anniversary of cannabis legalization has come and gone — and at least 250,000 Canadians still have a criminal record for past cannabis possession.
This is in spite of Bill C-93, which was advertised as a quick way for these Canadians to have the record of their conviction suspended (that is, the record would be removed and kept separate from the main Canadian police database).
How has the bill performed? Since becoming law in June, it has resulted in a mere 44 record suspensions.
It’s hardly surprising — even the description of Bill C-93 as providing “no-cost, expedited record suspensions” is misleading. While it does waive the $631 application fee and wait time of up to 10 years, it still requires applicants to spend time and money having their fingerprints taken, obtaining RCMP record checks and locating original documents from record keepers in the jurisdiction where charges were originally laid.
In short, the bill represents another piecemeal attempt at record reform that has only created more bureaucracy for the Parole Board of Canada to manage with its already scarce resources.
Bolder change is needed — for the entire record suspension process.
When the current $631 fee and additional requirements were added to the application process, the number of people seeking record suspensions decreased by 40%. At the same time, the success rates for those who did receive record relief remained the same — more than 95% were never criminalized again.
These data suggest we should be wary of onerous record suspension application processes. A crucial factor to successful community integration is having the means to support oneself. A criminal record is one of the most problematic barriers to people seeking employment, not to mention housing and educational opportunities.
What’s more, those marginalized by race, gender, class, health and ability are most likely to be left behind, further stigmatized and further punished.
They are often those most in need of a record suspension to pursue employment and a leg up and out of poverty, but least able to afford one.
We should be asking, then, what the current criminal records system is achieving, if not simply barring access and perpetuating marginalization for those with the least means.
After a certain period of crime-free years, individuals with a prior conviction, regardless of what that conviction was, are no more likely to be convicted of another offence than the rest of the population.
Continuing to allow criminal records to bar their access to employment, education, housing and other community involvement extends their punishment beyond the end of their sentence.
This does not serve the public interest. Indeed, by hindering opportunities for full community integration, it jeopardizes public safety.
Inaccessible criminal record relief also perpetuates systemic discrimination.
Individuals of African descent are overrepresented in the criminal legal system, making up about 9% of federal prisoners. Indigenous Peoples represent 28% of those in federal prisons — and 40% of women in federal penitentiaries.
Most Black women in federal prisons have been incarcerated as a result of Schedule II drug trafficking charges — a category that includes cannabis trafficking — usually as an attempt to provide for their children and escape poverty. Leaving prison with a criminal record means having to negotiate an additional barrier to employment and supporting their families.
When Parliament returns, I will be reintroducing a bill that replaces the Parole Board’s four current pardon/record suspension streams with one system in which criminal records — including cannabis records — will expire after a number of crime-free years, without the need for an application process or fee.
This legislation builds on the findings of multipartisan parliamentary committee work and public consultations by the government and the Parole Board of Canada. It reflects their consensus that the current application process is discriminatory, particularly for those who are impoverished.
Whether for cannabis or other records, it is time to end our costly, inaccessible and ultimately ineffective application-based systems for record relief.
It is in all of our interest to ensure that Canadians can move on from a criminal conviction.
Senator Kim Pate is the former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. She represents Ontario.
This article appeared in the November 12, 2019, edition of the Toronto Star.