Over 60 civil society groups call for criminal record reform

Fresh Start Coalition urges Canada to introduce a 'spent regime' to seal offenders' records

Over 60 civil society groups call for criminal record reform

A coalition of civil society organizations has launched a campaign urging the federal government to reform its handling of old criminal records, in order to promote the reintegration and workforce participation of offenders and improve community safety.

The Fresh Start Coalition comprises more than 60 civil society groups, including mental health organizations, violence against women organizations, poverty advocates, and Indigenous- and Black-led organizations.

“The current system is broken — and is placing unnecessary and at times insurmountable barriers to recovery and reintegration in front of people struggling to rebuild their lives,” said Abby Deshman, criminal justice program director at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, in the coalition’s press release.

Deshman urged the federal government to remove the “unnecessary and complicated application process.” The coalition suggests implementing a “spent regime” that automatically seals a criminal record if the offender has successfully completed the sentence and lived within the community for a number of years without incurring further criminal convictions.

“Such a system is already working well for youth records in Canada and should be applied to adult records,” said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society, in the press release.

The proposed regime seeks to address systemic inequality and the barriers facing job-seekers at a time when employers desperately need help. Canada first promised to reform its criminal record suspension regime in 2016, but five years later vulnerable individuals — including Black and Indigenous people, women, and trans and non-binary people — continue to suffer under the current system, said the coalition.

“It would help ensure that Black people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system are not forever trapped in it, and have a better chance at getting jobs, homes, and an education,” said Moya Teklu, executive director of the Black Legal Action Centre, in the announcement.

“The stigma of a criminal record jeopardizes the future of those Indigenous people who hope to pursue gainful employment and to secure a place within their respective communities as active participants,” said Drew Lafond, president of the Indigenous Bar Association, who noted that Indigenous people are disproportionately represented in Canada’s criminal justice system.

Having a criminal conviction record can prevent women from getting or keeping a job, travelling or volunteering, including for their children’s school field trips, said Pam Cross, legal director for Luke’s Place.

“Transforming Canada’s record suspension system will end these problems for [survivors of gender-based violence in the family] while also enhancing public safety,” said Cross in the press release.

“For women, trans, and non-binary people, surviving poverty is often the reason that they become ensnared in the criminal system, and the stigma associated with a criminal record serves to keep them there,” said Emilie Coyle, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

Record suspensions are currently only accessible to those who can afford them, so the practical implication is that those without such means are being further penalized for being poor, Coyle added.

The Fresh Start Coalition’s members include the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, the Canadian Prison Law Association, the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, the Health Justice Program, the HIV Legal Aid Network and Pro Bono Law Saskatchewan. Aboriginal Legal Services, Neighbourhood Legal Services, Prisoners’ Legal Services, the Halton Community Legal Clinic, the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario, the Kinna-aweya Legal Clinic, the Niagara Community Legal Clinic and the Queen’s Prison Law Clinic are also members.

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