Evaluating the Benefits of Pardons: An Overview of Criminological Highlights Summaries of Research Related to Pardons

Compiled from Criminological Highlights by Maria Jung (Ryerson University), Jane B. Sprott (Ryerson University) and Anthony N. Doob (University of Toronto).

View this issue as a PDF: PDF iconAn Overview of Criminological Highlights Summaries of Research Related to Pardons.pdf

Table of contents:

  1. Background to Pardons in Canada
  2. Predicting Offending/Re-Offending
  3. The Role of Employment Post-Release
  4. Impact of Criminal Records on Other Areas of Reintegration and Community Participation
  5. Public Perceptions
  6. Highlights

The following is an overview of relatively recent research related to policies of granting pardons to those who have been convicted of criminal offences. The research summarized here comes from Criminological Highlights. One-page summaries of the studies are appended to this report. It is recommended that this overview be read along with—rather than instead of—the summaries that are included (page numbers are provided in parentheses). The full studies, obviously, are available to those interested in particular findings.

Background to Pardons in Canada

In 1970, Canada introduced pardons with the enactment of the Criminal Records Act. The main political parties were in agreement with its main purpose: to help offenders reintegrate into society by reducing some of the legal, economic, and social barriers and stigma associated with a criminal record so they can fully participate in Canadian society. Under this system (with amendments in 1992), persons convicted of criminal offences could apply for a pardon after three years for a summary conviction offence or five years for an indictable offence. Pardons (now called “record suspensions”) allowed people who were convicted of a criminal offence, but had since demonstrated that they were law-abiding citizens, to have their record of conviction be kept separate and apart from other criminal records. This prohibited the record of conviction from being disclosed, except in specific circumstances involving interactions with vulnerable populations. In other words, a search of the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database would not show or disclose that the individual had a criminal record.

The Criminal Records Act states that:

2.3 A record suspension

a) is evidence of the fact that

i. the Board [the Parole Board of Canada], after making the inquiries referred to in paragraph 4.2(1)(b), was satisfied that the applicant was of good conduct, and

ii. the conviction in respect of which the record suspension is ordered should no longer reflect adversely on the applicant’s character; and

b) unless the record suspension is subsequently revoked or ceases to have effect, requires that the judicial record of the conviction be kept separate and apart from other criminal records and removes any disqualification or obligation to which the applicant is, by reason of the conviction, subject under any Act of Parliament other than…
[a set of very specific exceptions such as the possession of a firearm if a judge had imposed such a restriction]

The idea of a pardon (now officially a “record suspension”) is that it helps individuals in accessing employment, housing, education, and other opportunities. Pardons could be revoked if the pardoned individual was reconvicted or if the Parole Board had reason to believe that the recipient was no longer of good conduct. As of the 2011-2012 fiscal year (before major changes to the system of pardons came into effect), about 456,600 Canadians had received pardons and 95.7% of pardons issued since 1970 had never been suspended or revoked, indicating that the vast majority of those who had been granted a pardon had remained conviction free (Public Safety Canada 2012; Corrections and Conditional Release Statistical Overview, p. 108. Available online at: https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/pblctns/ccrso-2012/2012-ccrs-eng.pdf ).

Although the system of pardons seemed to be working quite well, as indicated by the fact that only about 5% of pardons had ever been revoked since 1970, the Canadian government nevertheless introduced major changes to the system of pardons through the Limiting Pardons for Serious Crimes Act (2010) and the Safe Streets and Communities Act (2012). The government justified the impetus to introduce these changes by referencing people in two high profile cases: one who had received a pardon and was later found to have committed other offences decades before the pardon was issued and another (Karla Homolka, partner to one of Canada’s more notorious killers) who was approaching the time when she would have been eligible to apply for a pardon (page 12). These changes eliminated the word “pardon” from the law and replaced it with “record suspension” in order to reflect the view of the government of the day that those who have committed criminal offences should no longer be pardoned or forgiven for what they have done, explicitly noting that a record suspension “does not erase a convicted offence” (https://www.canada.ca/en/parole-board/services/record-suspensions/what-is-a-record- suspension.html ). In addition, these changes made it generally more difficult, or in some cases impossible, for some offenders to apply for and receive pardons. The waiting period to be eligible to apply for a pardon increased from three to five years for summary conviction offences and from five to ten years for indictable offences. Certain offenders were rendered permanently ineligible to apply for a record suspension, including people convicted of certain sex offences and those convicted of more than three indictable offences for which the individual was sentenced to imprisonment of two years or more. The government offered no empirical evidence justifying this increase. Finally, the application fee was raised from $50 to $631, making the cost exorbitantly prohibitive, precisely for the very people who may be the least able to afford it (page 12).

Restricting pardons through these changes goes against the original objective behind instituting pardons in 1970—to help offenders reintegrate and fully participate in society. It has long been recognized in criminological research that there is value in helping those who have been convicted of criminal offences, and especially those who have served time in prison, to become peaceful and law-abiding members of society. Having a criminal record makes life markedly more difficult, particularly with things like obtaining employment, education, and housing—the very things that are essential in reintegration and community participation. A recent study of those applying for record expungement in Illinois found that criminal records impede offenders’ ability to get a job or housing, even many years after their contact with the criminal justice system has ended, with the criminal record constituting a form of “indefinite punishment” (page 13).

This overview will discuss four broad themes in the research literature that are pertinent to explaining why restricting pardons may be counter-productive to offender reintegration and ultimately, public safety.

  1. Studies on offending, re-offending, and predicting (re-)offending suggest that offending generally declines with age. In addition, the likelihood of re-offending decreases with increases in time since the last offence. Even the best risk prediction tools for offending and re-offending are neither very accurate nor effective in predicting whether a given individual will offend or reoffend, especially when using the presence of a prior criminal record as a predictive tool. In other words, the notion of “once an offender, always an offender” is not applicable to most offenders. Using a restrictive approach to pardons based on the idea thatthose with a criminal record are more likely to re-offend, forever, is not supported by empirical evidence.

  1. Research on prisoner re-entry demonstrates that employment, especially stable and permanent employment, is difficult to obtain post-release. However, when obtained, employment helps to reduce re-offending and increases reintegration. Making it difficult for people to obtain pardons also makes obtaining a stable job even more difficult, and thus has the potential to unintentionally increase the likelihood of re-offending, which works against the interests of public safety.
  2. Literature on the impact of criminal records shows deleterious effects in a variety of different aspects of civic engagement including but not limited to: employment, housing, education, and political participation. Limiting pardons does not accomplish the original goal of pardons; to reintegrate the offender by allowing full participation in the community.
  3. Examinations of public perceptions about sentencing and criminal justice decision-making suggest that the public is not likely to be opposed to pardons, if more information is provided about pardons and the circumstances surrounding different types of cases.

Back to top

Predicting Offending/Re-Offending

Trends in (Re-)offending over Time

There are two “brute facts of criminology”  (Hirschi and Gottfredson 1983, p. 552; Hirschi, Travis and Michael Gottfredson (1983). Age and the explanation of crime. American Journal of Sociology 89(3) 552-584.) that criminologists agree on as being associated with offending (and re-offending): sex and age. Males are considerably more likely to offend than females in all age groups for most offences. And younger people are much more likely to offend than older people. Although the age-crime relationship can depend somewhat on the offence, the overall pattern is that as people pass through adolescence into adulthood, the likelihood of offending drops dramatically. This is also why age forms a part of the ‘standard’ block of covariates in criminological studies so that researchers can ‘control for’ the age structure of a group, when examining the impact of other factors, typically by taking into account the proportion of groups that is between the age of 15 and 29 (usually the most crime prone years).

Indeed, as one study that followed a group of youths from age 7 to 70 showed, there was variation in the point at which certain groups of men peak in their offending rates (and subsequently drop off), but there were no groups whose level of offending did not drop off with age. In other words, “[c]rime declines with age even for active offenders” (page 14). This study categorized youths into a “high risk” group (i.e. the top 20% with the highest risk to offend) versus the rest. Although the offending rate was higher for the high risk group, for both groups the same curve emerged. High rate offenders showed the same pattern of drop-off in offending as was demonstrated by the group with lower rates of offending. In other words, as adults age, they become less likely to re-offend, even if they had offended once (or more times) in their lives.

In fact, it is impossible to predict at an early age who will turn out to be a high rate offender or who will re-offend among a group of high rate offenders. What can be predicted is that adults become less likely to re-offend as they grow older, no matter what their early pattern of offending looked like. This was observed in a study that followed, for 25 years, all who were convicted of a criminal offence in 1977 in the Netherlands. Only 2 of the 84 identified at the end of this period as “chronic” offenders could have been identified at a young age using the best prediction models that were available. However, “chronic” offenders followed the same pattern as low rate offenders; their offending peaked in the late teens to early 20s and then declined (page 15). Said differently, as people age, they lose the ‘offender’ status and look increasingly like non-offenders.

A number of studies examining recidivism have been conducted in different jurisdictions, time frames, and populations and have all come to similar conclusions. For example, a study following a representative sample of Dutch offenders whose cases were adjudicated in 1977 found that for most offenders who have lived crime free in the community for about ten years, criminal record was no longer useful in predicting offending. In other words, after about ten years in the community, those with criminal records were no more likely to offend than those without criminal records. In fact, if offenders reoffended, it was likely to occur shortly after their release from prison, not when they have been in the community for years (page 16). Another study examining those first arrested as adults at age 16 or older in 1980 in New York State found that risk of recidivism declines with the number of years since the last conviction. For property offenders, it took about four crime-free years and about eight crime-free years for violent offenders to be considered to have been essentially ‘redeemed’ from their criminal past. Similarly, studies of offenders from Pennsylvania and Wisconsin found that offenders who have gone six or seven years without committing a new offence are no more likely to offend than people who have no criminal record at all (page 17).

These studies demonstrate that the notion of “once an offender, always an offender” is not borne out by empirical evidence. In fact, the empirical evidence would support legal procedures like pardons that recognize that former offenders who have not reoffended after a period of time do not, in fact, present significant risks to society and public safety. Prior to the recent changes in Canada’s pardon legislation, the pardon legislation had taken into account the empirical finding that the likelihood of reoffending goes down over time. Under the previous system there was already a 3 or 5 year waiting time—not from the most recent offence, but from the end of the sentence for the most recent offences. Taking into account the noted delays and backlogs in criminal justice proceedings from time of the offence to sentencing and including the time of the sentence itself (including time on probation or parole, etc.), people were already waiting a substantial period of time after offending (often considerably more than 5 years) to apply for a pardon. In addition to not being based on any evidence, increasing the time to 5 or 10 years (for summary conviction and indictable offences, respectively) makes it more difficult and restrictive for people to receive pardons, without corresponding gains in public safety.

Trends in Sex Offending

Sex offenders [See also the Criminological Highlights collection “Some Recent Research on Sex Offenders and Society’s Responses to Them” 2013], or more specifically those whose offences involved minors, are one of the explicitly mentioned groups in the amendments to the Criminal Records Act that are rendered permanently ineligible from applying for and receiving a record suspension. Public attitudes are the most punitive and hostile toward sex offenders based on the stereotype that sex offenders are “unreformable” (page 18). If true, this would suggest that once people are identified as sex offenders, they would be likely to commit more sex offences in the future. However, the empirical evidence does not support this belief.

As noted above, offending declines over time and sex offenders are not exceptions. A study of over 7,000 people convicted of sex offences in eight countries demonstrates that after about 10 years, the risk of reoffending decreases significantly for all age groups of offenders, with most individuals convicted of a sex offence being unlikely to commit another sex offence, even those identified as being “high risk” to reoffend (page 19). Similar to non-sex offences, even if sex offenders were to reoffend, the likelihood of reoffending is highest shortly after release from prison, and declines dramatically over time, such that longer periods of being offence-free in the community are associated with decreased likelihoods of re- offending, even for those categorized as “high risk” (page 20). Even if sex offenders do re-offend, their offences are not likely to be a sex offence (pages 21 and 22). This finding also holds true for youth, as observed in an examination of young men convicted of sex offence before age 21 in England and Wales. After 10 years, young men convicted of a sex offence before age 21 were no more likely to be convicted of a sex offence than those initially convicted of a non-sex offence, with the likelihood of re-offending declining over time (page 23). This declining likelihood of re-offending over time is part of the reason that restrictive sex offender registration and notification laws have been found to have had no overall impact on the incidence of sex offences over a 35-year period in Houston, Texas (page 24).

The changes to Canada’s pardons legislation that have the effect of prohibiting certain sex offenders from applying for and receiving pardons is inconsistent with the empirical evidence. Most of the evidence would indicate that after about 10 years (the increased period of time for indictable offences brought into effect by the amendments), especially if they have been crime free, sex offenders pose no special threat to society. “If the goal is increased public protection…then efficient policies would be proportional to the risk presented” (page 19); —a risk that declines over time. Not allowing pardons for certain sex offenders based on the idea that ‘once a sex offender, always a sex offender’ is neither defensible nor consistent with empirical evidence.

Re-Offending Prediction Tools

The stereotype of ‘once an offender, always an offender’ often invoked by the government to restrict pardons (and other criminal justice reforms) is also not supported by the data we have on risk prediction instruments. No prediction model, tool, test, or instrument designed to determine whether a person is going to commit a crime in the future is perfect. On occasion, older people without any prior criminal record commit crimes. Or, alternatively, someone who meets all of the risk factors never commits a crime. For pardons, the concern is that some people will still commit crimes after receiving a pardon. No prediction instrument is perfect, and in the short term, having once been found guilty of an offence does make someone more likely (than an apparently crime free person) to commit a further offence. But the validity of these predictions is not perfect: Many people predicted to commit offences will not. And, on the other side, some people without any previous criminal history will commit an offence for the first time late in life. The fact that this is unlikely does not mean that it doesn’t happen. But if past behaviour were a good indicator of future behaviour in this area, then a much larger proportion of the pardons issued since 1970 should have been revoked. As already noted, only about 5% of all pardons issued since 1970 have been revoked. In other words, the prediction that those with past offences would commit future offences would be inaccurate in 95% of pardon cases. Making predictions about human behaviour, which is amenable to change and, to some degree is a matter of choice on the part of the person who is subject to the prediction, inevitably involves errors.

Consider this Dutch cohort study that examined whether prediction models can determine with any useful level of accuracy who would be likely to be a high rate offender in the future (page 15). Because the researchers followed everyone who had been convicted of a criminal offence in 1977 for 25 years, they were able to see the various patterns or trajectories of offending for those individuals. Based on this, they identified people who might be deemed ‘low rate offenders’ for a long period of time. They also identified a group of ‘chronic offenders’ who continued offending at a relatively high rate for much of their lives. Based on the characteristics associated with these two different groups, they tried to see if they could predict who would have been a future offender based on the information that would have been available when these offenders were young. They found that even with the best predictive model available, they would have been only able to pick out 3 out of 328 ‘low rate offenders’ and only 2 of the 84 ‘chronic offenders’.

Another study that tested the accuracy of the prediction tool most frequently used by British police forces in domestic violence cases to assess future domestic violence risk found that of those initially given ‘high risk’ ratings, only about 10% actually re-offended, meaning they were wrong in 90% of the ‘high risk’ cases (page 25). Risk prediction measures, particularly those based on prior criminal offences, are fallible indicators of likelihood of (re-)offending.

In addition to being fallible and inaccurate, prediction tools about (re-)offending tend to perpetuate systemic discrimination against marginalized and minority groups. Numerous studies have demonstrated this. For example, one study found that providing judges with risk assessments at sentencing tends to increase the likelihood of incarceration for poor defendants but decreases the likelihood for relatively more affluent defendants, other things being equal (page 26). An overview of the accuracy of predicting dangerousness in sentencing found that the best predictions available now for predicting future violent offending were wrong in about 3 out of 5 cases, with minority and other racialized groups being disproportionately impacted by incorrect predictions (page 27). By extension, making pardons more restrictive and difficult to obtain based on risks predicted by prior offending has the effect of disadvantaging the already disadvantaged when it comes to full participation in society.

Back to top

The Role of Employment Post-Release

One of the main ways in which individuals participate in society is through employment. Not surprisingly, then, one of the key ways in which the successful transition of people from prisons to communities can be facilitated is through employment. Employment can help to increase reintegration and reduce re- offending. However, having a criminal record makes obtaining employment, especially stable and permanent employment, very difficult. Restricting pardons further compounds these difficulties and has the potential to unintentionally increase the likelihood of re-offending which, in turn, works against the interests of public safety.

Difficulty Obtaining Employment Post-Release/Impact of Criminal Records on Employment

In fact, one of the main reasons that people apply for pardons is because of work. Using data from an organization that helps those applying for pardons complete their application, a Canadian study found that 71% of their sample mentioned employment as the primary reason for applying for a pardon, with this reason being mentioned by 87% of those under 40 at the time of the application (page 12). In other words, many people want to get a pardon as soon as possible so they can become productive members of society and participate in the labour force.

Obtaining employment after release from prison is extremely difficult. A study examining the search for employment by 133 men living in Newark, New Jersey, after their release from state prisons found that the post-release job market for offenders is one characterized by “irregularity, instability, and variability among marginalized job seekers navigating a labor market in which work [for which they are qualified] has disappeared” (page 28). These difficulties are not just limited to the time immediately following release. Even short periods of incarceration can have long-lasting impact on employment patterns. For example, one study compared convicted youths who were incarcerated and youth who were convicted but not incarcerated on employment outcomes and found that even with relatively short periods in prison (an average of 4 months), youths who were incarcerated had negative long-term effects leading to unstable employment and increased likelihoods of being out of the work force (page 29). Such precarious prospects eliminate wage growth for ex-offenders over their life course and contribute to significant wage gaps between non-offenders and offenders over time (page 30).

Unfortunately, these difficulties are compounded for marginalized minority populations with studies finding that a black person with a criminal record has an 85% lower chance of obtaining an entry level job than a white person without a criminal record (page 31) and that the wage gap between blacks and whites becomes even wider post-incarceration, after controlling for employment history, education, offence, age, and length of incarceration (page 32).

Impact of Employment on Re-Offending

If obtained, employment can increase reintegration and reduce the likelihood of re-offending. Providing work opportunities in construction and manufacturing to previously incarcerated heavy drug users reduced their offending and likelihood of re-arrest for any crime compared to a comparison group of previously incarcerated heavy drug users who were not given these work supports (page 33). Similar findings have been reported from different jurisdictions from studies that have examined offenders released from prison in Norway (page 34), in the US (page 35), and in the UK (page 36).

These findings not only apply to adults but also to young people who were incarcerated as youths in the US (page 37) and in the Netherlands (page 38). In addition to legitimate earnings, employment can help to reduce re-offending by increasing individuals’ contact with prosocial coworkers and decreasing their contact with delinquent people (page 37), while also increasing social control and changing routines (page 38). Employment can also provide a sense of stability in day-to-day life (page 39). For young adults emerging into full adulthood, especially those 27 years and older, providing even marginal employment opportunities reduced reoffending (page 40).

One way we can make it easier for people to obtain employment, and by extension help to better secure public safety by decreasing re-offending, is to help individuals overcome some of the negative effects of a criminal record by granting pardons. For example, an analysis of criminal record expungement practices in Michigan, which allowed a single criminal conviction to be set aside after 5 crime free years found that expungement was associated with increased employment rates and wages (page 41). The state of New York allowed people with criminal records to work in jobs that are presumptively restricted to those without criminal records, particularly low wage jobs in health care for which people do not need a specific license but do have contact with patients, such as positions in nursing homes and assisted living. There was a 4% reduction in re-offending over a 3-year period for those cleared for work (page 42). This type of evidence supports the increased availability of pardons (not more restrictions) in order to facilitate the transition from prison to community so that individuals can more fully participate in society, which in turn, reduces re-offending and helps to bolster public safety.

Back to top

Impact of Criminal Records on Other Areas of Reintegration and Community Participation  

Employment is not the only factor in reintegration that is negatively impacted by a criminal record.

Deleterious effects extend to other areas as well, such as housing, education, and civic engagement.


Research has documented the difficulties people have experienced in persuading a potential landlord to overlook their criminal record in obtaining housing. For example, even when people are forthright and tell potential landlords about their backgrounds, prospective tenants without a criminal record received agreement from 96% of landlords to view an advertised apartment compared to only 43% for those with a criminal record. In other words, having a criminal record cut in half the likelihood of a person even getting a chance to view an apartment, let alone obtain housing (page 43). Even for the same basic act— possession of marijuana – a 10-year old felony conviction with no subsequent conviction was more of an impediment to getting housing than a 1-year old less serious (misdemeanor) conviction for the same act (page 44). These findings highlight the need for some form of state expungement so that people who have been convicted of criminal offences can avoid being disadvantaged in obtaining housing after they have served their sentences. If anything, it now may be more necessary to make pardons easier to obtain than was the case in 1970. With the proliferation of the internet, landlords can easily do informal background checks which makes it easier to deny people housing where it appears that they might have a criminal record. In pre-internet days, criminal records could be rendered essentially invisible because there was no easy way for ordinary people to find out about whether an individual had a criminal record (page 13).


The presence of a criminal record also disadvantages people in their access to education. Many US post- secondary educational institutions require criminal history information from applicants, even though criminal history questions are not effective tools for reducing campus crime. Applicants with criminal records applying to 4-year colleges were more likely to be rejected than comparable applicants without criminal records who had slightly weaker applications (page 45). Given that higher education is a key factor in upward social mobility, job opportunities, and social cohesion, the presence of a criminal record can further disadvantage the already disadvantaged by cutting off access to future opportunities linked to education.

Civic Engagement

Research has also documented that a criminal record can hinder people from fully participating in their communities once released from prison by lowering their willingness for, and levels of, civic engagement (page 46). There is evidence that people tend to see government as “one big system” (page 46) and negative experiences from the criminal justice system may be generalized to other parts of the government, lowering their likelihood of registering to vote, of voting, and/or participating in civic and political activities, and reducing their trust in all levels of government. This results from the message communicated to people that they are not full members of the community. If we want people who have once committed a criminal offence to reintegrate into society and to fully participate in, and contribute to, civic and political life, we need to be able to reduce the stigma and barriers attached to having a criminal record.

Reducing the availability of pardons by making them more difficult and restrictive to obtain is counterproductive to the original aims of the pardons legislation instituted in 1970. The availability, generally, of information about a person’s criminal record has increased in part because of the availability of easy internet searches. Although a pardon would not reliably eliminate this information, a pardon would allow a person to demonstrate that they do not have an active criminal record. With far reaching consequences for employment, housing, education, and civic engagement, allowing the negative, punitive effects of a criminal record to continue for longer periods (or indefinitely in some cases) works against the very kind of reintegration we want offenders to experience in order to be able to participate fully in society.

Back to top

Public Perceptions

Even with the empirical evidence, some public officials may be concerned that pardoning people convicted of certain categories of offences would bring the administration of justice into disrepute or cause people to lose confidence in the justice system. However, research into sentencing and other criminal justice decision-making suggests that this worry is unwarranted. The public should be given more credit in terms of their ability to evaluate decisions when given appropriate information and evidence. [See also the Criminological Highlights collection “Research on Public Confidence in the Criminal Justice System”     (2014)] When ordinary people find out the details of the operation of the justice system, they are less likely to think that the criminal justice decision makers, for example, judges, are out of touch. There is substantial evidence that those who are better informed about sentencing, who are judging the appropriateness of sentences in cases they know about (e.g., in cases in which they were jurors), or who are given more explanation about the details of a particular case are more likely to be content with the sentence handed down than those who are not (see, for example, pages 47-50). Indeed, even support for mandatory life sentences for murder breaks down when case-specific information is provided. Of 10 different murder cases presented to UK respondents, in all but one scenario most respondents favoured a sentence with a definite ending (pages 51 and 52).

Similarly, the public is not likely to be opposed to pardons if they are given more information and context surrounding different cases. In fact, a Canadian study found that providing a small amount of information about recidivism rates for sex offenders (i.e. that their recidivism is not exceptionally higher than non-sex offenders) increased the acceptability of allowing those convicted of sex offences to receive pardons. If given appropriate evidence-based information that can minimize fears and highlight existing safeguards, the public is generally more receptive to reform than the government gives the public credit for, even on highly sensitive issues such as pardons for sex offences. [Murphy, Yoko (2020). Contextualizing opposition to pardons: Implications for pardon reform. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 20(1) 21– 38.]

Back to top


When Canada’s pardon legislation was first introduced in 1970, the Conservative opposition in Parliament argued that the “main purpose of this bill is not to coddle criminals. … This criminal record has hounded them for years and has created economic difficulties. We are now making an honest attempt to eliminate these difficulties as much as possible.” Further, it was argued that the pardon application must “be processed without any cost to the person concerned except the cost of the stamp and his time in writing the letter” (see original article highlighted: page 12).

Canada has now experienced more than half a century with the pardon. The most recent restrictions were imposed without reference to any information about the usefulness or problems with the pardon. The amount of information currently available about reoffending, among other relevant issues, has increased dramatically since 1970. A proper review of the pardon legislation, therefore, might include an examination of whether certain categories of criminal records should disappear on their own (as they do for youths convicted of offences). But in addition, a more nuanced and varied waiting period could be appropriate where the length of a criminal record and perhaps the seriousness of the offence could be considered in a thoughtful manner. Distinctions that now exist in the legislation (e.g., between a summary conviction offence and an indictable offence) become less meaningful as the number of “hybrid” offences (those that can be prosecuted by way of summary conviction or indictment) increases.

Making pardons more easily and broadly available would appear to make sense from at least two perspectives. In the first place, those with ‘active’ criminal records are likely to be experiencing ‘punishment’ as long as they have criminal records. But second, having a criminal record for a long time may undermine the safe reintegration into society of those who have offended.

Back to top


Volume 15, Number 2, June 2015: Canada’s system of pardons for ordinary offences was designed to reduce the stigma of a criminal conviction. Recent legislative changes were designed to undermine this purpose.

Volume 16, Number 3, January 2017: People with records of contact with the criminal justice system find that persuading others – potential employers or landlords – to overlook their records is just about impossible. They clearly realize that some form of state expungement of the record is necessary for them to have a chance at full reintegration into society.

Volume 6, Number 4, June 2004: In a longitudinal study of delinquent males followed from age 7 to age 70, there were no identifiable groups whose rates of offending did not decline with age.

Volume 11, Number 3, July 2010: It is impossible to predict at an early age who will turn out to be a ‘high rate’ or serious offender.  What can be predicted is that people become less likely to re-offend as they grow older no matter what their early pattern of ofending looks like.

Volume 11, Number 6, April 2011: Those employers who use criminal records checks for job applicants should know that for most former offenders who have lived crime-free in the community for about 10 years the criminal record no longer predicts offending.

Volume 8, Number 4, January 2007: Offenders who have gone six or seven years without committing a new offence are only slightly more likely to offend than are people who have no criminal record at all.

Volume 14, Number 2, March 2014: The  public  wants  sex  offenders  to  be  punished  harshly  because  they  are  seen  as unreformable immoral monsters who prey on young children.

Volume 18, Number 2, September 2019: A study of over 7,000 people convicted of sex offences in 8 countries demonstrates that after about 10-15 years, most individuals with a history of sexual crimes are very unlikely to commit another sex offence. Risk of reoffending decreases dramatically with time for all age groups of offenders and for people who, when released, were originally identified as either being high or low risk to reoffend.

Volume 15, Number 4, December 2015: The likelihood of someone convicted of a sex offence reoffending decreases substantially the longer that person remains in the community offence-free.

Volume 5, Number 3, December 2002: Drug testing of youthful offenders on parole may create more problems than it resolves.

Volume 8, Number 3, November 2006: Compared to other groups of offenders, sex offenders are not a highly specialized group.   They are no more likely to be “specialized” offenders than are other types of offenders (i.e., those who have committed violent, property or public order offences).

Volume 14, Number 6, January 2015: The vast majority of young  sex offenders will never be convicted of another sex offence.

Volume 18, Number 4, March 2020: A careful analysis of the efects of sex offender registration and notifcation (SORN) laws in Houston, Texas using data from a 35 year period fnds that the original law, as well as changes which broadened its impact, had no overall impact on the incidence of sexual offences. Furthermore, the law had no apparent efect on four subsets of these offences/offenders: sexual assaults, sexual ofences against children, frst-time offenders, and repeat offenders.

Volume 18, Number 4, March 2020: The prediction tool used most frequently by British police forces in domestic violence cases to assess the risk for future domestic violence is found to have failed to give substantial assistance to police officers in identifying high-risk re-victimization or recidivism cases.

Volume 18, Number 5, June 2020: Providing judges with risk assessments at sentencing increases the likelihood that poor defendants will be incarcerated but reduces the likelihood of incarceration for relatively affluent defendants.

Volume 18, Number 4, March 2020: It has been well known for decades that predictions of future violent offending are more often than not wrong. A sizable majority of people placed in preventive detention awaiting trial, and a sizable majority of people sentenced to longer sentences because of violence predictions, would not have committed violent crimes.

Volume 17, Number 3, June 2018: The employment and job search activities of men released from prison is not orderly. Employment after release is often the result of an uncertain and haphazard process that leads to a job that may last only a day or two.

Volume 11, Number 4, September 2010: Incarcerating young adults who could be punished in the community ensures that they will be less likely to be in the workforce upon release.

Volume 5, Number 3, December 2002: Being imprisoned has a permanent effect on wages: those who have been incarcerated are likely not only to have reduced wage income, but the effect of imprisonment increases as workers get older. Hence, the increase in wages that ex-offenders experience as they age is smaller than that earned by non-offenders.

Volume 6, Number 3, March 2004: Men – especially black males – with a prison record in America will have considerably more difficulty in obtaining entry level jobs than will those who have never been incarcerated.

Volume 12, Number 3, January 2012: The gap between the earnings of Black and White Americans increases after imprisonment.

Volume 14, Number 4, August 2014: Providing work opportunities to heavy drug users reduces their offending, but does little to reduce cocaine and heroin use.

Volume 13, Number 3, April 2013: Getting offenders jobs after they are released from prison contributes to lower recidivism.

Volume 15, Number 3, September 2015: Focusing resources on helping former prisoners locate, gain, and retain reasonably paid employment can reduce subsequent offending.

Volume 9, Number 5, July 2008: Whether or not men released from prison ‘go straight’ depends on the types of social obstacles and the disadvantages that they face in the community as well as their mindset as they leave prison.

Volume 6, Number 4, June 2004: Employment for young adults reduces crime largely because previously delinquent youths not only come into contact with prosocial peers in the context of their job but also stop associating with those who supported their delinquent activities.

Volume 15, Number 6, June 2016: For young people who were incarcerated as youths, gaining employment as adults reduces involvement in crime.

Volume 16, Number 4, April 2017: Regular – but not temporary – employment or receiving public assistance can reduce property offending by youths released from a treatment facility at age 18.

Volume 4, Number 3, September 2001: Does providing offenders with a job on their release from prison reduce recidivism? It does, but only for those who are relatively mature (at least 27 years old). Arranging employment for younger offenders seems to do little.

Volume 18, Number 1, July 2019: Expungement of criminal records leads to increased employment.

Volume 16, Number 5, July 2017: Allowing people with criminal records to work in jobs that are presumptively restricted to those without criminal records reduces the likelihood that they will re-offend.

Volume 15, Number 3, September 2015: Having a criminal record directly impacts the ability of people to obtain housing, even when those with records are forthright and tell potential landlords about their backgrounds.

Volume 18, Number 4, March 2020: Many US post-secondary educational institutions require criminal history information from those applying for admission. In an experimental study examining actual admissions decisions, applicants with criminal records applying to 4-year colleges were more likely to be rejected than equivalent applicants without records.

Volume 14, Number 4, August 2014: People who are sent to prison are less likely to participate fully in their communities and in civic life after they are released.

Volume 9, Number 4, April 2008: Ordinary citizens who are fully informed about the sentences that are handed down in criminal cases are likely to be relatively content with those sentences.

Volume 15, Number 2, June 2015: People who have served on juries do not think that judges are out of touch with the public on sentencing. When they see the sentence that the judge handed down in ‘their’ case, they are even less likely to think that judges are out of touch.

Volume 11, Number 6, April 2011: Those citizens – jury members – who have intimate knowledge of specific criminal cases are quite content with sentences imposed by judges in  those cases.

Volume 16, Number 5, July 2017: An Australian study demonstrates that ordinary citizens who are intimately aware of the details of a specific criminal case are much more likely to agree with the sentence handed down by the court than public opinion surveys would suggest.

Volume 12, Number 4, March 2012: Residents of England and Wales want judges to have discretion in the sentencing of murderers.

Volume 6, Number 2, December 2003: Beware of the soundbite question. The picture that one gets of the public’s views of mandatory sentencing laws depends on the questions which are asked. Simple, general questions tend to portray the public as harsh and vengeful. In contrast, specific questions about particular cases demonstrate a more thoughtful and nuanced set of public attitudes.

Publication Type