Ontario takes positive step in employing people with criminal records | John L. Hill

By John L. Hill

Law360 Canada (September 30, 2022, 9:13 AM EDT) --
John Hill
John L. Hill
We see them everywhere — signs in shop windows saying, “Help Wanted.” What we are not accustomed to seeing is advocates for prisoner rights in Ontario complimenting the provincial government for initiatives to assist people released from imprisonment.

Yet, as pointed out in a Sept. 26 article in The Lawyer’s Daily, Yonis Hassan, the CEO of the Justice Fund, the province of Ontario and Minister Monte McNaughton are making a much-needed commitment in prioritizing funding opportunities for youth in conflict with the law. Hassan’s praise was echoed by Colleen Scanlan, a John Howard Society WorkPath Employment Services program participant who took the stage with Minister McNaughton in Hamilton as the government announced a $90-million investment in the Skills Development Fund that is intended to fund innovative training projects to assist people with disabilities, Indigenous people, Ukrainian newcomers and prioritize people with prior involvement in the criminal justice system.

The minister pointed out statistics that highlight the need for funding: over 370,000 jobs in Ontario are going unfilled costing billions in lost productivity. Yet, as the minister noted, there are four million Canadians with a criminal background and a criminal record and 41 per cent of those are on social assistance.

I recently dealt with a young man in my hometown who was sentenced to 18 months in jail but was on parole after serving six months. He served out the entirety of his sentence without incident. The six months of prison time was the only blemish on an otherwise enviable record of sport and community service. Although well-educated and having worked in middle-management for a chain restaurant, he is now unemployed and cannot find work.

When he does apply for a job that would be consistent with his abilities, he finds he is always asked to declare on his application form that he has no criminal record or sometimes, in more polite parlance, that he is bondable. Misstating his background would be reason for dismissal with cause should he be found out. In a small town everybody knows and word would get around. He attempted career counselling and told his only option was to deny his record.

Prison labour has been tried in federal institutions. In 1980, the Correctional Service of Canada introduced CORCAN industries. Prisoners who participated were paid minimum wage (a significant benefit when “inmate pay” to purchase canteen items was only a few dollars a day) and maybe for the first time developed the mindset of having to get up in the morning and going to work.

The programs were condemned largely in academic circles as “slave labour” but inmates were eager to sign up. Custodial staff expressed support because after working a full day, inmates were less inclined to get into trouble.

Whether prison industry is considered a positive reform or a “fiasco” as it has been branded from time to time, it cannot be denied that even if benefits were achieved, prisoners, once released, faced the social stigma of trying to adapt once again in free society.

Former inmates have told me that there is always the feeling that one has an indelible mark on their foreheads reading “Ex-Con” and they feel they are of lesser worth in society.

That public attitude will not change overnight. It will be necessary for a number of success stories from the people hired as a result of the province’s Skills Development Program to demonstrate that marginalized citizens can make an important contribution in the workforce.

Obtaining a pardon would eliminate the need to falsify a job application but pardons take years to obtain. The need for employees is now.

This most recent announcement provides those with a criminal record the opportunity to advance. The opportunity to obtain a job in the long run will reduce crime and grow our economy. It’s a win-win situation. So as a long-time advocate for prisoners’ rights, I have one word for Minister McNaughton: Congratulations.

John L. Hill practised and taught prison law until his retirement. He holds a J.D. from Queen’s and LL.M. in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall. He is also the author of Pine Box Parole: Terry Fitzsimmons and the Quest to End Solitary Confinement (Durvile & UpRoute Books), which was published Sept. 1. Contact him at johnlornehill@hotmail.com.

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