Criminal Records: A Lifetime Sentence

29 Mar

Being a criminalized person means much more than just being convicted of a criminal offence. It also signifies that moving forward, this person will be labeled as an untrustworthy individual. It means that dreams of a bright future may be traded in for raised eyebrows during job interviews and awkward pauses when disclosure is necessary. Once convicted of an offence, an individual is destined for a lifetime of receiving feeble excuses as to why the desired job was given to someone else; constant rejection from memberships and associations; ongoing anxiety and painful indecisiveness about disclosing past convictions; and systemic legal kicks to the gut, over and over, when already down and out.

Indeed, the repercussions in the wake of a criminal conviction are often much worse than the actual sentence handed down. It many scenarios it would be much more accurate for the Judge to state, “Suzie, for shoplifting those gloves I am sentencing you to a $500.00 fine, 3 months’ probation, a lifetime of not being able to land a good job, and decades of embarrassment and stress.”

A criminal record damages lives and limits personal growth for those who are trying to rebuild their worlds. No matter how minor the conviction may be, a record of offence can be a crippling life sentence unto itself.

Undoubtedly there are offenders who need to be, and should be, held firmly accountable for inconsiderate, unlawful and harmful actions against society. There are sociopathic career criminals who do not care about the consequences of their actions. However, these comprise only a small segment of the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who find themselves facing court action in any given year.

The vast majority of offenders are generally ordinary people who may have made bad decisions during a difficult time in their lives. Statistics show that the majority of criminalized folks come from a background of poverty, inadequate education, abuse, trauma, and addiction/ alcoholism.

Consider the young woman who, when overly intoxicated, had an altercation in a bar and now, 10 years later, because of her record, cannot get a job to support her family despite her qualifications; the shoplifter who stole groceries because he couldn’t afford to feed his family and is rendered unable to get an entry-level job in a call centre or even a factory, to feed them now; or the person who sold drugs while in the grips of addiction who, despite being a clean, sober and upright citizen for years, cannot go visit a beloved dying family member outside of Canada.

Further, there are still others who simply made a desperate or unwise decision in the moment – for example, the young adult who shoplifts a box of condoms because he’s too shy to bring it to the checkout counter and who is now barred from entry to his preferred university program.

In all honesty, how many of us have done silly things, made rash decisions or even committed more serious crimes in a moment of temporary insanity? The majority of us, unless living in a bubble, have not always practiced perfect adherence to the rule book.

Imagine if we had all gotten caught red handed in our ‘faux pas’? Although punishment may have been warranted at the time, is it really still rehabilitative that years later we should continue to be prevented from obtaining gainful employment, blocked from meaningful volunteer opportunities, refused access to valuable programs, denied travel privileges, and continuously shamed?

This type of collateral damage to a person’s life and to their self-esteem flies in the face of our Canadian legal system, which purportedly encourages rehabilitation and reintegration for those who have had legal issues. 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.

We have often heard the old adage that once someone has “done the time” (or paid the fine, adhered to probation, or completed community service hours) they’ve served their penance to society and their debt is paid. In practice, this is an idealistic crock and simply untrue. People’s lives are affected by a criminal record indefinitely, often long after they’ve legally made good on their offence.

In 2010, the government reacted to an exceptional situation involving a repeat sexual offender who had obtained a pardon and then re-offended, by drastically increasing the waiting times for a pardon from 3 to 5 years for a summary offence and from 5 to 10 years for an indictable offence. The fee for a pardon, now called a ‘record suspension’, was radically hiked from $150.00 to $630.00.

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 that will support his family?

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 serious criminals this measure was designed to punish, thousands of decent people have been denied a timely and essential opportunity to repair their lives and start fresh.

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.

As Canadians, we are blessed to live in a progressive and socially aware society. As a forward thinking nation it would seem that we are being called to develop a new approach to corrections and rehabilitation that would actually empower our people to become better citizens. It would certainly improve our economy to harness a previously untapped resource – reformed individuals who are ready, able and willing to become productive members of society.

Currently the only real relief from the ordeal of living with a criminal record is to apply for a Record Suspension. Despite the extended waiting times and the increased cost, at the end of the day the freedom of never having to sweat out a job interview or feel disqualified from opportunities, and the ability to go where any free person may go without embarrassment or fear of rejection, may be well worth the investment.

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