#FairChecks: A fresh start for the criminal records system

Unlock and Transform Justice launch the #FairChecks movement to advocate for reform of our outdated criminal records regime.

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This is a guest post by Christoper Stacey, Co-director of Unlock.

#FairChecks

In the 1960s, when Richard was 16, he was found in possession of a small amount of cannabis. He was prosecuted for possession and given a one-year conditional discharge. As a student a few years later, Richard got into trouble again and was convicted of taking an item of food from a warehouse where he worked stacking shelves. He was given a one-year conditional discharge and put the mistake behind him.

After fifty years of good behaviour, a productive career and many positions of responsibility, Richard believed his record was clear. He was approaching seventy when his son wanted to join a choir and as a dad, Richard needed an enhanced DBS check. He suddenly discovered that the police were still listing his youthful mistakes as criminal convictions. Richard feels he is being punished for things that happened decades ago.

“When you look at this record, it looks dreadful. But I was never really the drug taking thief that it suggests – I was a young person who made a couple of silly mistakes. But it’s harder than you would ever believe to correct the impression this record creates, even though no-one apart from me knows or should care about what happened over forty years ago.

Because of this “new” old record, Richard had to go through the shame and embarrassment of disclosing a criminal record that was older than some of the panel considering his case. He feels unable to apply for third sector work he would like to do. He believes he is being prevented from contributing to society in a way the justice system never intended.

“I thought that conditional discharges were invented to help people get back on track – but since the invention of the CRB/DBS, people like me are shackled with old records they cannot get deleted. This creates a problem that never goes away. We have lost faith in the capacity of people to learn from their mistakes and to change for the better.”

One in Six have a criminal record

Around one in six people in England & Wales have a criminal record. Whether it resulted in a prison sentence or a fine, a criminal record can be disclosed on a standard or enhanced criminal record check for the rest of their life. Even a minor criminal history produces lifelong barriers that can block reintegration and participation in society. The vast majority of people won’t have been to prison, and many don’t even realise they still have a criminal record until they apply for a new job or volunteer role that involves a standard or enhanced criminal record check.

People like Richard must declare their convictions if they want to be a traffic warden or taxi driver aged 50.  A person can change quickly, particularly when they are young, but their criminal record remains.

Our current criminal records disclosure regime prevents people from achieving their full potential. It can be particularly crippling for employment, with 75% of employers discriminating against applicants because of a criminal record, and 50% of employers saying they would not recruit offenders or ex-offenders. The stigma attached means that if a conviction or caution is revealed, people often don’t get the chance to explain how they have turned their life around.

DBS checks

An increasing number of employers require DBS checks, and we know that many convictions and cautions that are revealed on these checks can be from many years, sometimes decades, ago. For example, research published by Unlock in 2018 showed that in the previous 5 years, over 1 million criminal records that related to offences from more than 30 years ago (when the person involved was between the ages of 10-25) were disclosed on standard or enhanced criminal record checks.

This happens without any good evidence that shows disclosing criminal records makes society safer. What the evidence does show is that time-passed is a key indicator – research from the US academic Karl Hanson shows that after 10 years offence-free (5 years for children), the risk presented by most individuals with a criminal record is not meaningfully different from that of the general population This begs the question why so many convictions from so many years ago keep on being disclosed on DBS checks.

In January 2019, the Supreme Court gave its judgment in an important case that Unlock intervened in. The case focused on the rules that determine what gets disclosed on standard and enhanced DBS checks. The Supreme Court ruled that two aspects of the rules are disproportionate and in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The government has yet to properly respond to this ruling.

The inclusion of old and minor offences on DBS checks carried out for employment and volunteering opportunities remains the single biggest issue that people contact Unlock about. This ultimately comes down to the rules (known as ‘filtering’ rules) that determine what gets revealed and what comes off a standard or enhanced check. Working to change the rules has been one of our priority areas for a number of years.

That’s why, together with Transform Justice, Unlock has set up the #FairChecks movement.

The #FairChecks movement has been launched to advocate for reform of our outdated criminal records regime. We would like the government to reduce the length of time a record is revealed and remove out of date information from DBS checks. And we are asking MPs to get the government to work out how to do this by launching a major review of the legislation on the disclosure of criminal records. If you are interested in reforming the criminal records system so that everybody can fulfil their potential, visit fairchecks.org.uk where you can join the movement and write to your local MP.

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