18 April 2019

A criminal record should not be a life sentence for ex-offenders

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The positive link between work and rehabilitation is one of the few articles of faith in the criminal justice world.

Almost any reputable data will show that offenders in employment – particularly those in stable, high quality work – are less likely to re-offend than those who are unemployed.  People in this type of work will tend to form strong pro-social bonds with others, have a greater sense of meaning and self-worth and, of course, by paying taxes, they will reverse their drain on public resources and become contributors. Takers become givers. They are also incredibly loyal staff according to James Timpson, the Chief Executive of Timpsons, the ubiquitous cobblers and watch repair service:

‘We look for staff everywhere, but a lot of people who have been in prison are desperate for an opportunity and we find they make great colleagues.’

Timpson is one of a rare breed of employers who actively seek out former prisoners and, through careful vetting and support, bring them into the company ethos and training on either side of the prison walls. For many other people however, a criminal record, no matter how minor or how old, effectively bars them from the jobs market in the first place. Now the Home Secretary has vowed to look again at the pre-employment disclosure system aimed at protecting us from offenders after the Supreme Court struck down some of those processes as “disproportionate”.

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, brought in in 1974, works, in principle at least, with the grain of Timpson’s ‘second chance’ philosophy. The purpose of the Act was to introduce the concept of ‘spent’ convictions – to put a time limit on the requirement to declare a past criminal record to employers. Effectively this meant that in many cases, if you had expired convictions and an employment application form asked you to declare them you could ‘legally lie’ and tick the box that said none. That at least put you on a level playing field with other candidates. The goal behind this legislation was admirable – ensuring a minor youthful indiscretion should not poison your chances of success in later life.

However the Act had qualifications in terms of the latitude allowed, known as exemptions. These have  been strengthened over the years as systems, processes and public perceptions of risk have changed.

For example, convictions of four years and over or those that involve public protection are never ‘spent’ and must always be disclosed. Additionally, the creation of the Criminal Records Bureau in 2002 (CRB) and its successor, the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) in 2012 enabled employers to access information that could include allegations as well as actual court disposals in circumstances where an applicant was applying for ‘regulated’ employment. Regulated employment applies to a plethora of categories, from actuaries to vets, but is mainly related to employment in environments where there is access to money or vulnerable children and adults or which involve actual or delegated exercise of legal powers.

It’s obvious that we must not let convicted paedophiles have any access to children through employment. In fact the ‘barring’ part of the DBS screening service makes it illegal for applicants to apply for or employers to employ them in areas where they know they have been barred. Lists of people barred from working with vulnerable children or adults have been around for years and the current legal challenge has nothing to do with these safeguards.

The proportionality of other aspects of the operation of the system has been called into question by the Supreme Court. The list of regulated activities is extensive and other legislation interacts with it in a way that still makes it possible for youthful law breaking to blight employment chances later in life.

In one prominent case, Bob Ashford, a former senior colleague of mine at the Youth Justice Board, was forced to abandon standing for election for Policing and Crime Commissioner because of a childhood offence of trespass committed 46 years earlier. Ashford was so incensed at the unfairness and perversity of his treatment he started a charity, ‘Wipe The Slate Clean’ to campaign for a reformed approach to juvenile offending records. He was supported by another PCC Candidate, the Falklands veteran Simon Weston, who also had to abandon his PCC ambitions because as a youth he had one conviction for being conveyed in a stolen car.

The Supreme Court ruling has focused on two areas in its judgement, the requirement that some childhood convictions for ‘imprisonable offences’ (those that could but often did not attract prison sentences, as in Ashford’s case) be disclosed indefinitely, and the requirement that if a job applicant for a job has multiple convictions he or she must disclose all of them, regardless of whether they are spent or not.

We need to give people who have offended second chances and we also need to ensure predators are never allowed to be employed with access to people they could hurt and abuse. It ought to be possible to achieve both aims with a bit of finesse to an already decent system. It surely can’t be right to eternally anchor people to crimes that they have committed as young people. It ought to be possible to change the filtering system of the existing DBS data base to make it easier for the estimated eleven million people in the UK with criminal histories to find work by removing irrelevant historic information.

James Timpson and other enlightened employers have found that a past criminal record, far from being a predictor of future trouble, can often motivate people given a chance to be the backbone of their company. A similarly enlightened official review of criminal history disclosure will also help more people to put something back without threatening public safety. Redemption works.

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Ian Acheson is a prison safety expert. He led the independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons and probation ordered by then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove.