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January 14, 2020

A criminal record – the new life sentence

Peter was 18 in 1982. That year he struck someone when trying to protect a pregnant woman from being attacked, and was convicted of actual bodily harm. Although the magistrates said his actions were commendable, he had broken the law and so received a 1-year conditional discharge and a fine of £75. This type of offence has to stay on Peter’s enhanced criminal records check forever and he thinks it has affected potential employers in his field – education: “I know on at least five job applications I have met every detail of the job specification but, because I was honest, I never even got an interview! Surely after 37 years I shouldn’t have to declare the offence on a DBS. I am completely rehabilitated, a happy family man who made one error when I was 18 years old.” 

One in six people in England and Wales has a criminal record. Many don’t realise they even have one till they apply for a new job or try to travel to the USA. But minor indiscretions have lifelong consequences in our system. Anyone convicted of shoplifting twice aged ten must declare those convictions if they want to apply to be a traffic warden or a taxi driver aged 50.

Those who have turned their lives around want to put youthful mistakes behind them, but our system makes this almost impossible. Everyone who is convicted of a crime (including speeding, being found without the right travel ticket, possession of a small amount of cannabis) is subject to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act – which means that in nearly all cases they must declare the conviction to potential employers for a period afterwards. This temporary stricture can make it difficult to get a job, get on a university course or get insurance. But criminal records can also penalise people for  life, not just for a finite period. A growing number of roles require a DBS check – this means that a conviction or caution may be revealed to a potential employer years after the event. Sometimes the person applying for the job can’t even remember the conviction, or doesn’t realise the information has been retained until it comes up on the DBS check. Criminal records are a double punishment for all those who have done their time or paid their fine. And they really do prevent people moving on – 75% of employers discriminate against applicants because of a criminal record, and 50% of employers say they would not recruit people with convictions.

If there was good evidence that criminal records made society safer, one could make an argument for their fairness. But the checks we currently have in place are not effective or proportionate. Long term studies show that the norm is for people to stop committing crime. Juveniles (those under 18) and older people are particularly likely to stop offending after getting into trouble with the law. Academic Karl Hanson recently called for change in the criminal records system: “Given the low rate of first time offending after age 40, there is almost nobody over the age of 50 who presents a significant risk of offending. Among the large number of neighbours, co-workers, family, and friends with old criminal history records, few will present any significant risk of criminal behaviour”. Given such evidence that people move on to become law-abiding citizens, it makes no sense to make people like Peter declare a conviction from 37 years ago. 

A new #FairChecks movement has been launched to advocate for reform of our outdated criminal records system. We want the government to shorten rehabilitation periods and remove out of date information from DBS checks. And we’re asking MPs to get the government to work out how to do this. If you are interested in reforming our system so everybody can fulfil their potential do join the movement at fairchecks.org.uk