Tom is 50. Back in the early 1990s, when he was about 19 or 20 years old, a night of heavy drinking ended badly. Tom got into a fight with a man on a bicycle, and tried to steal the bike. He didn’t end up with the bicycle, but the police showed up and Tom spent the night in jail.
Tom was charged and convicted for a minor theft, an outcome he thinks he might have avoided if his family could have afforded a lawyer. (Instead, he was appointed one by the court).
Tom was fined $400, but he’s struggled with money for much of his life and didn’t pay it.
As time went on, the outstanding fine started to make Tom anxious about every interaction with authorities – trying to renew his driver’s license, getting pulled over by police for a minor traffic violation. He feared “that because I didn’t pay this fine, I would actually have to go and spend time in jail in order to make up for it.”
The anxiety was so great that Tom just avoided dealing with the issue at all, believing that even starting to inquire about how to pay the fine could bring him unwanted attention from authorities and possible incarceration.
Meanwhile, Tom’s conviction has been a barrier to employment and greater financial stability for 30 years. Tom has worked in graphic design and web design. “I would apply for a job. I would fill it out, hope that nothing popped up. And then, I get the job. And then a few days later, the recruiter or the head of HR, would say, ‘Oh, there’s a problem.’ So there’d always be this dread.”
Even when Tom has been able to get past his record with an employer and work in the field, the conviction has cost him numerous opportunities to advance. He could work on contract, for instance, but could not be hired as an employee because of a blanket policy against hiring people with criminal records. At other times, he has been barred from working on certain clients’ files because of their policies on criminal records. And, Tom said, “A lot of times I just would not apply for corporate positions because I knew they just were pretty much black and white” when it came to criminal records.
Tom eventually decided to start his own retail business, in part to avoid having to discuss his decades-old conviction. “As I was doing research for owning your own business and getting licenses through the city of Toronto, I did see that you’d have to get some records checks. …You see that and it just makes you go, ‘Oh, great. Here it is again. I’m never going to be able to do anything.’”
Tom was eventually able to open his business, but the worry and stress remains – he feels like his criminal record can pop up anywhere unexpectedly and impact his ability to earn a living.
Eventually, Tom started to look into the process for applying for a criminal record suspension.
With his wife’s help, Tom started trying to take the first step toward clearing his record – paying the now decades-old fine. “I’ve tried to pay it,” he said. “It’s been almost impossible because we’ve been in touch with the courts, they’ve sent us paperwork. They’ve told us to go to different courthouses. …it’s just been very hard to nail down where everything is, because it was done such a long time ago that I think it got lost in the system.”
Tom has learned that he can’t be jailed for the unpaid $400 fine. Once he pays it, that would start a waiting period of several years, after which he would be eligible to apply for a record suspension. The current cost of the application for a record suspension is $657.77.