Youth criminal records
We find it a matter of regret that the laudable principles of the youth justice system, to prevent offending by children and young people and to have regard to their welfare, are undermined by the system for disclosure of youth criminal records, which instead works to prevent children from moving on from their past and creates a barrier to rehabilitation.
That was the headline conclusion of a recent (27 October 2017) House of Commons Justice Committee report on Disclosure of youth criminal records.
The report also argues that the system may well fall short of the UK’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The scale of the problem
Problems caused by the disclosure regime potentially affect large numbers of people.
In 2014-15, 26% of standard DBS checks and 23% of enhanced checks related to subjects who were under 18 at the time of a conviction – a total of 46,547 individuals were affected.
The impact of youth criminal records
Witnesses highlighted the adverse effect of childhood criminal records on individuals’ access to employment, education, housing, insurance, visas for travel, and its discriminatory impact on BAME children, those within the care system and others.
Barriers to employment
Several witnesses gave evidence that barriers to employment increased the chances of an individual reoffending; if a child believes that their criminal record “will haunt them forever”, this encourages the development of an anti-social or pro-criminal identity. Ali Wigzell, Chair of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, emphasised the link between employment and desistance. She commented:
A criminal record can act as a key barrier in that way, because it essentially labels that person as an offender and prevents them from developing a prosocial identity by gaining employment and seeing that reflect back to them by their significant others.
Education, housing, insurance and travel
Witnesses pointed out that applicants to university are advised to declare their convictions and argued that having a criminal record can affect children’s motivation to continue their education, because they fear discrimination and because they do not want their conviction disclosed. Very minor offences can cause people trouble throughout their whole professional career as this story demonstrates:
Retaliation against a school bully led to a young woman receiving a police warning for actual bodily harm at the age of 15. As a result, her university place to study nursing was revoked. She appealed against the decision, which involved writing a disclosure statement explaining the circumstances of the warning to a risk assessment panel. After qualifying, she eventually obtained employment in nursing but has found career progression difficult because of her criminal record, which she is continually having to explain.
Housing is another, slightly unexpected, area which causes difficulties and discrimination for people with criminal records. The housing allocation schemes in at least 13 London boroughs contain restrictions on people with criminal records. The problems created by such restrictions are illustrated by a recent court case, where the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham was challenged for its refusal to add a 19 year old care leaver to its housing register because of “unacceptable behaviour”—that is, his history of offending between the ages of 12 and 15.
People with criminal records can also find difficulties in getting insurance and obtaining travel visas to certain countries, especially the USA.
Overall the evidence strongly supported the case for changing the criminal records disclosure system. The majority of those who expressed a view thought that reform was also needed in respect of records of crimes committed by young adults (18–25 year olds). The Committee received evidence of the different approach in other countries:
The Committee made five main recommendations:
- Lord Ramsbotham’s Criminal Records Bill to reduce rehabilitation periods under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 should be enacted
- An urgent review of the filtering regime, to consider removing the rule preventing the filtering of multiple convictions; introducing lists of non-filterable offences customised for particular areas of employment, together with a threshold rest for disclosure based on disposal/ sentence, and reducing qualifying periods for the filtering of childhood convictions and cautions
- Considering the feasibility of extending this new approach, possibly with modifications, to the disclosure of offences committed by young adults up to the age of 25
- Allow chief police officers additional discretion to withhold disclosure, taking into account age and the circumstances of the offences, with a rebuttable presumption against disclosure of offences committed during childhood;
- Giving individuals the right to apply for a review by the Independent Monitor of police decisions to disclose convictions of cautions.
Committee Chair Bob Neill summarised the views of the Justice Committee by sending a strong message to the government that substantial reform is needed:
The Government confirmed to us that its primary objective in youth justice is to stop people being drawn into crime, with consequent blighting of their life chances, as well as harm being caused to victims and communities.
But these laudable aims are systematically undermined by the current disclosure regime; mistakes made as a teenager can follow someone around for decades and create a barrier to rehabilitation, as well as profound problems with access to employment and education.
According to the Children’s Commissioner for England there is no evidence to suggest that having committed more than one offence is predictive of a greater risk of continued offending in adulthood; on the contrary there is considerable evidence that most children stop offending as they mature. Yet we still have a system which works to prevent children from moving on from their past and creates a barrier to rehabilitation.
We regret the Government’s decision to pursue an appeal against the recent Court of Appeal decision on the compatibility of the filtering system with human rights standards, rather than tackling the urgent need for reform.
Please check out my resource page on offender employment which lists the main organisations helping people with criminal records find employment.
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