John Howard Society, February 26, 2020
Last year Senator Kim Pate introduced a bill that would provide automatic expungement of criminal records in Canada. Under this bill, criminal records would automatically be sealed after a certain amount of time had elapsed following a criminal sentence unless there had meanwhile been a new criminal charge or conviction.
Expungement of criminal records is important because a criminal record has many harmful effects for a person’s entire lifetime, even decades after the end of their sentence. It is important to keep in mind that 3-4 million Canadian adults, or about 1 in 8, has a criminal record of some kind. Wherever you live in Canada, you likely have neighbours with a record. But, as another post on this blog showed, most people never commit a second crime, and this likelihood declines with every year that passes.
Current practice in Canada is bad
As Senator Pate pointed out , the current system in Canada is expensive (more than $600 to apply), very bureaucratic, and systematically works against poor and marginalized people. The Liberals had promised reform of these measures in the 2015 election but failed to act. In 2019 this issue disappeared from their election commitments.
A post on this blog last April supported Pate’s efforts. Research cited in that post shows that automatic expungement is fairer, cheaper and actually safer than Canada’s slow, costly, discriminatory and ineffective system of ‘administrative suspensions’ introduced by the Harper government.
Simply from a financial point of view, one study found that automatic expungement cost 5 cents per person compared to $3700 for a one-at-a-time process such as we have in Canada.
And despite the government’s claims of an enhanced process to grant pardons for cannabis possession now that it is legal, only a handful of the 250,000 or so Canadians with such records have received pardons so far.
US efforts on expungement
While Pate’s bill did not pass, there has been a great deal of activity in regard to expungement of criminal records in the US recently.
The Collateral Consequences Resource Centre (CCRC) reports that US states passed more than 150 laws in 2019 that curtailed criminal records or restored rights to people who had records. Of these, 67 laws in 31 states and the District of Columbia dealt with expungement.
Some of the new expungement laws provide very little help because, like Canada’s system, they are complicated, expensive and limited in scope. However the CCRC reports that three states, Utah, California, and New Jersey, followed the example set by Pennsylvania’s 2018 “Clean Slate Act” by enacting automatic relief for a range of conviction and non-conviction records. For example, New Jersey’s clean slate law puts in place a process by which all but certain convictions, as well as non-conviction records, will be automatically made “inaccessible to the public” ten years after completion of the sentence for the most recent conviction.
Five other states provided automatic relief for certain categories of convictions, such as cannabis possession. Eleven states extended relief to non-conviction records, such as records of arrest where no charges were laid. In Canada also these non-conviction records can cause serious negative consequences for people. And three states (Colorado, Washington, and New York) made broad-based procedural reforms to their criminal records laws.
More to be done
The problem of criminal records is much greater in the US. Estimates are that 70-100 million Americans, or about 1 in 3 adults, has a criminal record, with much higher rates among visible minorities. And US states put more restrictions on people with convictions, such as inability to vote or receive many social benefits.
If the government were serious about saving money, helping struggling Canadians, and contributing to greater equity it would act expeditiously to make pardons automatic.
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