The federal government is making it more affordable for people to get their criminal records suspended and get back to normal life after serving time, but the process still isn't perfect, an advocate says.
The application for a pardon now costs $658, too much for people likely relying on social assistance and barely making ends meet, said Judy Murphy, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saint John.
But on Jan. 1, that fee will will drop to $50, according to the Parole Board of Canada.
"This is a fantastic start," Murphy told Information Morning Saint John. "The cost is so prohibitive. This is a happy beginning."
Getting a pardon, also known as record suspension, allows people to reintegrate into society, get a job more easily and volunteer.
But despite the welcome drop in costs, the process of getting a pardon is still not perfect, Murphy said.
People who have been convicted of crimes can apply for a record suspension 10 years after they're released if they committed an indictable offence, and five years if it was a lesser, summary, conviction. The wait times could be shorter if the offences were committed before 2012.
Murphy said this is still too long a wait, especially if people are in a job interview and are asked about the long gap in their resumé.
"That is still, to me, a huge barrier, and it still keeps people in that that vicious cycle of poverty," she said.
The wait time for the application process is six months to more than a year, and the criminal record is restored if a person commits a crime again.
Elizabeth Fry Society has a 50-member consortium trying to bring reforms to the suspension process. The group also been raising money and trying to get grants to subsidize or pay the processing fee, Murphy said.
The government said applicants are responsible for any additional fees such as fingerprints, record retrieval, court documents and police checks.
Applicants need their fingerprints done for the criminal record checks required for pardon applications, and some places, including Saint John, charge for this.
Murphy said getting fingerprints done can cost between $26 and $85. Getting court records can also add travel costs if the person has charges in an area different from where they're living now. This means the $50 is a fraction of the overall cost, she said.
"I think you're still looking at $300 of costs," she said.
The process is also complicated, with "no wiggle room for errors."
She said all of these factors keep people in the system.
Why is a pardon important?
Murphy said having a criminal record affects people economically, socially and emotionally.
"We found people that we work with would be have a job interview, for instance, scheduled. And then at the last minute, they would tell us, well, 'I cancelled it' because they felt so much shame about having a record."
She said this impact is twice as hard on women and gender diverse people.
"It also affects the next generation because most of the people we work with are mothers and are a single-parenting person in that household," she said.
The government said it's still "exploring" automated sequestering of some criminal records "for those living crime-free," doing away with the application process all together.