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Why every criminal record should not be a life sentence

Penelope Gibbs
09 Jun 2023

If you had done your time for a crime, should you still be punished for it many years later? Recently the Mirror published a story that the chief executive of a major charity had been imprisoned for murder 44 years ago. The man had served his sentence, was deeply sorry for what he did and had spent his whole life since working to help other people. His past was not a secret; his bosses knew about it and also know he is not the same person he was at 16. I’m deliberately not naming the charity since I think there’s no public interest in the story, however interesting to the public. We attach shackles to those who have moved on from crime by publicising their crimes and forcing them to declare old and/or minor crimes when applying for jobs. Currently one in six people in England and Wales have criminal records. Even a teenager who gets a caution for throwing a ball through a window (criminal damage) will have to declare that crime to any potential employer for three months. Woe betides the 14 year old who gets in a playground fight and is convicted of affray. She will have to declare that record again and again if she wants to work anywhere near children and vulnerable adults, even if she just wants to volunteer. All those who applied to volunteer during Covid were subject to the highest level of criminal records checks. A friend who had long since been released from prison for fraud was not allowed to help in the car park of a Covid vaccination centre. A third of employers will automatically reject a potential recruit with a criminal record. The two thirds who don’t automatically reject may think twice about recruiting someone with a record if they have two equally suitable candidates.

I’m not suggesting for a moment we have no criminal records checks. Of course employers need to know about very serious and recent offences. And they do – through the checks and through the barring system which prevents those convicted of offences like sexual assault from applying for certain jobs. But our system is now spewing out 7 million DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks a year and these include information that is totally irrelevant to the job or volunteer opportunity.

Cautions are given by the police for lower level crime, like shop-lifting, or painting graffiti. People often accept cautions without having any legal advice and without understanding that the offences can appear on some DBS check years later. In the last five years the DBS issued 72,067 checks revealing cautions which are over a decade old. In many cases those who ask for a check can’t even remember being stopped by the police, given they were not actually convicted.

Teenagers do stupid things. Most teenagers have probably committed some kind of crime but not been caught for it. Teenagers should stay on the straight and narrow, but shouldn’t we readier to forgive those who don’t? Particularly since the children most likely to be caught by police are from the communities (black, poor) who face the most challenges getting good employment. But we give our most foolish citizens few breaks when it comes to criminal records checks. Last year the DBS agency issued over 12,000 checks disclosing crimes committed when a child. Over 2000 of those checks revealed crimes committed over 40 years ago.

This level of disclosure is unnecessary and unfair. It’s recognised in the USA as such and many States have a more progressive system of disclosing criminal records than ours. California has recently passed laws which allow people with convictions to apply to have their records “sealed” four years after leaving prison. We and the other supporters of the campaign are calling for change in the checks done in England and Wales – for we are all more than our past.