The issue

For people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system, finding steady employment is a critical part of rebuilding their lives and helping prevent further contact with the justice system. The presence of a criminal record prevents people from getting a job and the stability that comes with it. Canadian law currently allows people to apply for a record suspension, to lift the burden of an old criminal record – but the system as it stands is broken. It is slow, difficult to navigate and expensive. People with old criminal records are too often facing unnecessary, counterproductive barriers to reintegration. 

Revisiting how Canada deals with old criminal records would dramatically increase individuals’ chances of accessing employment, transforming people’s lives, increasing community safety, and curbing systemic discrimination. 

The status quo in Canada is out of step with both the evidence and public opinion. 

Public safety is increased when we eliminate unnecessary barriers to employment. Social science evidence shows that an old criminal record does not provide a reliable indicator of a person’s future likelihood to commit crimes – in the workplace or elsewhere. To the contrary, having a job is a key protective factor that significantly decreases the likelihood of re-engagement with the criminal justice system. 

And Canadians believe in second chances. According to nationally representative polling research conducted by the John Howard Society of Ontario in 2020, at least eight in ten Canadians believe that those with a record who have been convicted and served their time should have the chance to work again once they have completed their sentence. 

Other jurisdictions have introduced ‘spent records’ legislation that effectively fosters labour market engagement by directly supporting the reintegration of individuals who have remained crime-free after completing their sentence. It is time for Canada to step up and do the same. 

Widespread – and Discriminatory – Impacts

As many as one in nine Canadians have a criminal record of conviction, and many more have non-conviction records that may be revealed on police record checks. Black people and members of other racialized communities, Indigenous persons, those experiencing homelessness, mental health challenges, and addictions, along with others who are marginalized, are disproportionately policed and criminalized, and therefore, overrepresented in police databases. Racialized individuals also face compounded discrimination at the hiring stage. 

With limited options for employment, many individuals with past justice involvement face a lifetime of poverty and marginalization. A recent study from the federal government found that 14 years following release from a federal institution, only half of individuals had employment; the median income was $0. Of those that had an income, the average was $14 000 – an income that puts people well below the poverty line. The impacts for Indigenous populations are even more pronounced. Indigenous individuals earned an average of $10 000. 

The federal government’s driving policy goal should be to further public safety and equality by strongly, safely, and effectively facilitating and supporting individuals’ efforts to get jobs and contribute positively to their communities. Those who face the most marginalization and discrimination resulting from past justice involvement are the same populations who are unable to access pardons under the current national policy framework. This is fundamentally a social justice and racial equity issue. 

An Inaccessible, Antiquated System

A record suspension, formerly known as a pardon, “seals” a person’s criminal record preventing it from being disclosed on most police record checks. It doesn’t erase a criminal record. The goal is to foster reintegration by removing some of the legal, economic and social barriers and stigma associated with an old criminal record. However, in its current state, the record suspension system in Canada is inaccessible to those who need it the most. High application fees, eligibility restrictions, wait periods that can be over a decade and a complex bureaucratic process discourages and disqualifies many people from even applying. 

The current record suspension application-based process of describing one’s past can be itself a major barrier for those with literacy or other challenges, or an inherently re-traumatizing experience for those whose records arose from traumatic circumstances, such as a mental health crisis or intimate partner violence. 

Too many people are being left behind, unable to move on from their criminal record, even after the passage of time and positive life changes. There are also no federal laws governing the use of adult non-conviction records, meaning that in some jurisdictions a  record of arrest or a mental health apprehension is more readily disclosed than a finding of guilt.