#FairChecks: A fresh start for the criminal records system

Work with Offenders looks at a new initiative to reform our outdated criminal records system

Earlier this month two charities launched a new campaign to bring our criminal record system up-to-date. The charities are Unlock, a national organisation which provides voice and support for people with convictions who face stigma and obstacles because of their criminal record, and Transform Justice which works for a “fair, humane, open and effective justice system”.

The campaign – #FairChecks – argues that our out-dated criminal records system is holding hundreds of thousands of people back from participating fully in society. Even a minor criminal record can produce lifelong barriers to employment, volunteering, housing and even travelling abroad, many years after people have moved on from their past.

One of the case studies provided to help launch the campaign demonstrates the very long reach of the criminal records system:

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 50 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.

The #FairChecks movement

The #FairChecks movement has been launched to advocate for reform of our outdated criminal records regime. Unlock and Transform Justice would like the government to reduce the length of time a record is revealed and remove out of date information from DBS checks. The charities are also 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 visit fairchecks.org.uk where you can join the movement and write to your local MP.