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Few pardons granted since 2010 changes

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OTTAWA — The number of criminal pardons granted has plummeted since changes to the law last summer, newly released figures indicate.

Only 772 federal pardons were issued up to Jan. 31 out of more than 6,600 applications accepted since the new rules came into effect last July.

Some of those applications remain under review and could still get the green light, according to the Parole Board of Canada. But they represent a dramatic drop from the old 98-per-cent acceptance rate, usually within three to five months, under the old system.

The plunging acceptance rate tells only part of the story about how much more difficult it has become to get a pardon in Canada.

Under the old system, about a quarter of all applications were returned to the applicant, for various reasons, without being adjudicated. Since last June, the “error rate” has skyrocketed to more than 60 per cent, with just 6,604 applicants actually getting to the consideration stage out of 17,192 pardon applications.

“Absolutely, they’re nitpicking everything,” said Jared Church, managing director at Express Pardons in Vancouver, a commercial firm that helps prepare applications.

Church suggests federal pardon officers might feel “overwhelmed with the new requirements, so they’re finding any reason at all to return applications so they didn’t have that extra work to do.”

“But certainly there was a big change in the number of applications being bounced before the initial acceptance phase.”

On Thursday, the Conservative government announced the start of a 17-day public consultation period on a proposal to more than quadruple the current pardon application fee to 1. Submissions can be madetoconsultations@pbc-clcc.gc.ca.

The proposal also gives the parole board up to two years after accepting an application to rule on a denial. Pardon advocates say even highly complicated cases have typically taken no more than nine months to a year.

A two-year wait, said Church, “is almost unheard of. I don’t know where that’s coming from.”

The numbers appear to support claims by advocates for the rehabilitation of former convicts and by those in the pardons industry that the system is grinding to a halt because of the public backlash over a pardon to former hockey coach Graham James, who was convicted of molesting two teenage players.

The Conservative government, with the backing of all three opposition parties, passed legislation last June that increases the waiting period before those convicted of violent and sexual crimes can apply for a pardon. Those convicted of the most serious crimes must now be of good conduct for 10 years after their sentence is completed before they can apply.

The legislation also gave pardons officers on the parole board greater discretion to simply reject pardons that would “bring the administration of justice into disrepute.”

The reforms were billed as a means to stop “heinous” criminals from routinely securing pardons. But the practical impact appears far more sweeping as pardons officers exercise their new-found discretion.

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