Canadians with criminal records for drug possession will see them disappear within two years after the government’s criminal justice reform bill becomes law, a move that could affect hundreds of thousands of people.
Criminal records can prevent people from obtaining jobs, volunteer opportunities, housing, and hinder their ability to travel.
The automatic “sequestration” of drug possession records was made possible by a New Democratic Party amendment to Bill C-5 and was accepted by the government.
“I said we needed a better bill… High on my list was trying to get rid of criminal records for simple possession,” said NDP justice critic Randall Garrison, who proposed the amendment.
“I have been assured that within two years of the bill’s passage, criminal records for personal possession of all drugs will be gone.”
Bill C-5 is the government’s attempt to reduce the excessive incarceration of black and indigenous people in prisons. It passed the House of Commons in June and went to the Senate, where it will be considered in committee in the fall.
The bill would also repeal mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses and some firearms offenses; expand the use of conditional sentences, such as house arrest; and requiring police and prosecutors to use their discretion to keep drug possession cases out of court.
It is estimated that up to 250,000 Canadians may have drug possession convictions stemming solely from possession of cannabis, when it was still illegal. The government launched a revamped clemency application process for those people in 2019, but Garrison said only a few hundred people have been successful.
“Your existing system isn’t working, so let’s do something simpler,” he said.
A spokesman for Justice Minister David Lametti, who introduced C-5, said Garrison’s amendment and others were accepted “as our government believed they were essential to improving the bill and achieving its objectives.”
The bill stops short of decriminalizing drug possession, something advocates, people who use drugs and the NDP have long called for.
“While the burden of possession convictions falls heavily on Canadians of color and Indigenous Canadians, the same is true, of course, of having those criminal records and not having been able to take advantage of any complicated and expensive process to get rid of them. Garrison said. .
Garrison had pushed to have drug possession records expunged and said the government responded with “sequestration,” which he says means they won’t show up on a criminal background check.
“The government’s argument is that they can’t physically destroy the records because they are kept in many different formats in different places, but they can guarantee that they will never show up on criminal background checks again,” he said.
He said the government insisted within two years to implement a kidnapping system.
The amendment also means that anyone who obtains a drug possession record after the bill passes will see that record expunged two years after completing any sentence, Garrison said.
People with criminal histories who are eligible for pardons currently have to apply, a process that advocates say can be onerous and expensive, preventing many from doing so. The government has long been urged to create an automated system, but has shown resistance in the past.
“It’s actually a very complicated process with a lot of steps,” said Samantha McAleese, a researcher at Carleton University who studies the impact of the pardon system on people with criminal records.
Although the government reduced the application fee from $657 to $50 this year, McAleese said there are still other costs associated with having to obtain various police and court records in order to apply.
“So any time we can cut through the bureaucracy required to secure those human rights protections is a good time,” he said.
Public Security Minister Marco Mendicino, who is in charge of the pardon file, has expressed his support for the seizure of drug possession records, according to a statement from his office.
Consultations had already begun on the automatic sequestration of a wider variety of criminal histories, his office said.
“We hope that recommendations similar to MP Garrison’s proposal will emerge from that review,” the statement said. “We remain committed to implementing measures that move our justice system closer to eradicating systemic racism and ensuring a more effective and fair justice system for all Canadians.”
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