Pennies for Pardons

As Canada is making the penny redundant, you’ll hear of many organizations raising money for charity by having people donate their little coppers.

The Elizabeth Fry Society of Calgary is one of those charities. EFry works to help women in conflict with the law, either in prison or transitioning back to civilian life from prison. Much of the funds raised by EFry goes towards paying for the pardons of the women.

It seems to me, particularly in light of punitive legislation being passed by our federal government in terms of prisons and prisoners, that our society is becoming more socially conservative in matters such as these. Many people I speak to, often young, open-minded individuals, surprise me by easily turning their back on prisoners. The mentality is very much: Oh, well they are criminals. They deserve what they get.

The reality of the situation is so much more muddled than that, and I believe harder to stomach by our society, which maybe explains the desire to explain away the problems. Very few women are in jail for violent crimes. Instead, they are prosecuted for poverty-related crimes, or mental illness. Many, out of desperation for limited security or shelter, are left with little choice but to steal or turn a trick.  They are in jail, essentially, because they have no where else to go. Some people are serving jail time because they couldn’t afford their C-Train fine – how fucked up is that?

And when prisoners are returned to society, they have supposedly paid their debt to society. If we focus on the main point of the prison system – that of rehabilitation – then this should be the time when former prisoners can start fresh again.

Only, how is it possible to get a fresh start with a criminal record? This severely limits the ability to get a job that pays enough for subsistance, or to return to school to get necessary training. Women in this position are not capable of fully participating in society, or are given the means to be able to provide for themselves. Men, at the very least, have the option of working labour jobs where they are paid for work under the table. Women often must resort to theft or working the streets to make ends meet.

And they become a part of the never-ending poverty-crime cycle.

That is the importance of pardons, or rather record suspensions. They allow a person with a criminal record to be able to return fully to society, with the chance to work, earn money, pay taxes and offer stability to their family. It is a major factor in the rate of prisoner recidivism.

However, the application fee for a pardons has risen this year from $50 to $631. With additional processing fees, the amount is north of $1,000. For many people having been imprisoned for a length of time for a poverty-related crime, this amount of money is unthinkable. And so the crime cycle continues again.

And before you go arguing that all criminals deserve to be behind bars, permanently, please keep in mind that I am not talking about violent offenders, the murderers, rapists and pedophiles. Please. Even once released, the record suspension is conditional, meaning not just everyone will get one. What I am talking about is the people who ended up in prison because they had nowhere else to go, like because they couldn’t afford the train. It simply isn’t rational to argue that someone like that should be penalized for the rest of their life.

It’s just something to think about. EFry is vastly underfunded, and cannot afford to help provide pardons to the many desperate women who need them.

A penny drive is a good idea – people aren’t going to miss their pocket change. But even if the response to the penny drive is overwhelming, what does it mean? It takes more than 100,000 pennies to help one woman.

For more information on The Elizabeth Fry Society of Calgary, see their current newsletter or visit them at

Nov-Dec Newsletter

Word of the day:

Fallacious: containing a fallacy;  logically unsound: fallacious arguments; deceptive; misleading: fallacious testimony.


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