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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Criminal records a life sentence for young people

From employment, volunteering and studying at uni, to travelling abroad & buying home insurance, Unlock shows how a criminal record represents a significant barrier to thousands of people, even decades later.

The impact of criminal records acquired when young

Unlock, the UK’s charity for people with convictions, has just (9 May 2018) published research on the impact of criminal records acquired in childhood and early adulthood.

New data in the report, A life sentence for young people, shows that hundreds of thousands of people are being affected every year, and often many decades later, because of mistakes they made when they were children or young adults. In the last 5 years alone, over 2.25 million youth criminal records were disclosed on standard/enhanced checks by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) that were over 15 years old.

I fought to get a degree and get a job in my profession.And I’ve been crime-free for over a decade. Yet I still fear that dreaded enhanced DBS check.

Key Finding

This report is part of the charity’s Unlocking Experience project, which aims to investigate, highlight and seek solutions to structural barriers that young adults in England and Wales face as a result of a criminal record. The report combines a number of activities  including:

  1. Freedom of Information requests to the DBS and Disclosure Scotland to better understand the numbers of people affected by the official disclosure of criminal records through criminal record checks.
  2. A survey of people who acquired a criminal record in early adulthood (which gathered 318 responses).
  3. Work with the Justice Committee into their short inquiry into the disclosure of youth criminal records.

In the last 5 years alone on standard/enhanced DBS checks:

  1. Nearly 850,000 people have been affected by the disclosure of a youth criminal record on a standard/enhanced check.
  2. Over 3.5 million youth criminal records have been disclosed
  3. Over three-quarters of youth criminal records disclosed (almost 2.75 million) were over 10 years old.
  4. Over 2.25 million youth criminal records disclosed were over 15 years old.
  5. Nearly 1 million youth criminal records disclosed were over 30 years old.

As these figures show, youth criminal records endure throughout adulthood, working life and beyond. To many, it feels like a life sentence. The sheer number of very old and minor criminal records that are routinely and unnecessarily disclosed raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the criminal records regime, in particular the DBS filtering process.

Although most criminal records become ‘spent’ at some point under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, this is gradually being regarded as meaningless in a society where enhanced DBS checks are on the increase, media reports of old convictions are more readily available, and a general risk aversion towards people with criminal behaviour in their past.

Those who get a criminal record as a child or young adult can find that their lives are affected in multiple ways for a very long time, and often for the rest of their lives. From employment, volunteering and studying at university, to travelling abroad and buying home insurance, this report shows how a criminal record represents a significant barrier to the ability to move on and can drag people down, even decades later.

Case studies

When he was 17, Michael (an alias) was convicted of theft of a coat from a market stall. He was fined £30. Ten months later, 23 days after turning 18, he was convicted of stealing a motor cycle and driving without insurance. He was fined £50 and sentenced to 24 hours at an attendance centre. That was 36 years ago; he’s come a long way since then. He’s now in his fifties. However, Michael’s long-forgotten past has come back to haunt him and he’s concerned about his work as a finance director. He could lose his job and a career that he’s worked hard for.

When she was 11, Anita was playing with a cigarette lighter in the girls’ bathroom at school and set a toilet roll alight causing around £100 of damage. She was arrested for Arson and told that the reprimand she was given would come off her record when she turned 19. Then after months of being bullied in secondary school, she was involved in a fight. She and the other pupil were both arrested for Actual Bodily Harm. She was encouraged by the police to accept a reprimand rather than challenge it in court and was told it would come off her record in five years. Now nearly in her thirties, she’s a qualified English teacher. However, not only was her record not removed like she was told it would be, but her two reprimands come up on enhanced DBS checks and will do under the current DBS rules for the rest of her life. The hopelessness of trying to find work has led her to working abroad and to bouts of depression and anxiety.

 Under the current system, Michael & Anita’s criminal record will be disclosed for the rest of their lives.

The caution I got when I was 15. It’s still affecting me 35 years later. It’s like a life sentence.

Challenging the system

On the same day they published this report, Unlock launched a CrowdJustice appeal. Money raised will help cover Unlock’s legal costs for intervening in a landmark Supreme Court case next month. They intend to make sure that the court understands the importance of the issue, the failings of the current system, and how it could be changed for the better.

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