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Breaking the law has consequences; we know that.
But should relatively minor offences, especially while young or in extenuating circumstances, haunt a person for decades?
The answer should be no.
This month, SaltWire journalist Chris Lambie chronicled the story of Tina Reilly, a 47-year-old Halifax woman who made admittedly bad choices while young but now is trying to better her life.
But Reilly’s hopes to work as a medical administration specialist have been stymied by her criminal record from decades-old minor offences.
In 1994, while living in P.E.I. as single mother, Reilly, associating with the wrong crowd, was convicted of shoplifting. She served a few days of a one-week sentence.
In 2004, while in Thunder Bay, Ont., during an alcohol-fuelled argument with an abusive boyfriend, Reilly slapped her partner. She was convicted of assault and served nine days.
She moved on, working as a waitress, bartender and in retail. Eventually, she moved back to Halifax.
Recently, Reilly took a one-year medical administration program, but she couldn’t complete the course’s required eight-week placement.
Why? Her criminal record. The same record that keeps derailing her job-finding attempts.
Reilly looked into a federal pardon — called a record suspension — and discovered she still had outstanding, quarter century-old restitution orders for about $2,000 related to her shoplifting that would have to first be repaid.
Restitution is an important principle. But as Elizabeth Fry Society executive director Emma Halpern told SaltWire, let’s not forget that for lower-income individuals, finding $2,000 can seem insurmountable.
When an individual is sincerely trying to become a more productive member of society but, due to their financial circumstances, cannot make restitution before applying for a pardon, should redemption be priced out of their reach?
Canada’s justice system has long been criticized for unequal access based on an accused’s financial worth.
Fortunately for Reilly, her story moved two anonymous donors to pay off her debt, along with the $631 fee to apply for a record suspension.
But it may still take years to actually get that pardon.
Federal regulations stipulate a five-year wait for pardons for summary offences, although a Quebec court last spring reduced that to three years.
So, Reilly would be 50 before a criminal record based on minor offences committed when about 20 (shoplifting) and about 30 (slap assault) could be expunged. In the interim, her criminal record would continue to block her access to the career for which she trained.
That seems a disproportionately harsh penalty for crimes for which she long ago served her time, and for which restitution has now been made.
Reilly is receiving legal assistance to challenge the situation, but it’s unclear if the Parole Board of Canada has the legal discretion to waive that at-least-three-year wait.
Ottawa ought to re-examine the status quo concerning pardons for summary offences, with an eye to giving the Parole Board more flexibility to fairly deal with the circumstances of individual cases.
Reilly can hardly be the only person now being hurt by what seem overly rigid and counterproductive rules.