Why criminal records have to go

If you ask Lib Dems whether they suppport prison reform, they will say yes. A general chat about rehabilitation, drug laws, mental health funding and Scandenavia usually ensues – all of which I wholly endorse. But if we are really going to address our prison crisis, then criminal records are the elephant in the room.

Rehabilitation is about allowing people to become productive parts of society after they leave prison, and discouraging reoffending. One of the best ways to do this is to help people find employment (as page 8 of the Ministry of Justice’s Transforming Rehabilitation document confirms). If someone lands a stable job after leaving prison, then of course they’re less likely to reoffend. Employment gives people structure, income and purpose. It’s common sense that it helps them reintegrate into society.

But if ex-prisoners have to disclose their criminal records as soon as they apply for a job, why are we surprised that so many of them remain unemployed? What incentive do employers have to take a chance on them, when the job market is so tough as it is? We seem to paradoxically believe that it’s important for ex-offenders to find work, but that no employer should have to risk hiring them. Employers might feel safer being able to sivve former criminals out without hesitation, but it’s agonizingly counter-productive for society. Poor rehabilitation leads to an increase in crime, and puts all of us in danger. Freezing ex-offenders out of the job market makes everyone less safe.

I understand people’s concerns about this, and there are some extreme cases which I would make exceptions for. I would allow schools to check whether someone is a paedophile for example, and banks to check if someone has been convicted of fraud. But these cases should be the exception not the rule – reserved for people who have committed crimes in a specific area which they shouldn’t be allowed to work in again. In the overwhelming majority of cases, we should wipe the slate clean. If we really want people to move on with their lives, recreate themselves, and get into work again – then it makes no sense to hold them back from the job market, and to stigmitize them further.

Politicians have become dangerously apathetic about the state of our criminal justice system. We invest millions of pounds into it and it hardly performs any of its basic functions. It costs the taxpayer a fortune, ruins offender’s lives – and with repeat offending as high as it is – doesn’t even make us safer. I understand that scrapping criminal records isn’t much of a vote winner right now, but we need to take rehabilitation much more seriously, and make some difficult decisions about why it isn’t working. The international Ban the Box campaign has been focussing on this issue for years, and has persuaded many companies to at least allow applicants to display their qualifications and achievements first before disclosing their criminal records. The Lib Dems should believe in empowering people to empower themselves. This applies to everyone – including ex-offenders.

* Ben is a Councillor in Sutton, and has been a member of the party since the 2015 election. He used to work for the Sutton Liberal Democrats as a volunteer organiser, but now works for a charity focusing on poverty and inequality in London. He is particularly interested in inequality, mental health, political reform and criminal justice.

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22 Comments

  • Richard Underhill 9th Dec '16 - 10:27am

    Timpson does. https://www.timpson.co.uk/about/careers-at-timpson.
    Their chief was on Question Time recently and writes an agony uncle column for business people in Daily Telegraph. His son has continued the policy and interviews prisoners before release. A BBC Radio 4 presenter had the same surname and did an interview on the Today Programme.
    In the Prison Service there was/is a Pre Release Employment Scheme (PRES) for Life Sentence prisoners which was/is an essential part of a release plan.
    BBC Radio 4 World at One very recently had an item about the Dutch prison service. The number of prisoners is falling so prisons are closing. Prisoners convicted of violent offences are working in prison kitchens with large, sharp knives.

  • I’m sure this article is well intentioned, but I’m afraid the author is correct in implying it’s a vote loser. The public and employers are entitled to expect transparency in these matters.

    It would have been better to have proposed re-establishing the probation service as it was before the party wrongly and to its shame) permitted privatisation in the Coalition.

    “The Independent” 4 October, 1916 : Privatisation of probation services branded a failure by two watchdog inspections. Not one of 86 offenders studied ‘had any help in relation to training, education or employment’ by Rob Merrick Deputy Political Editor @Rob_Merrick Tuesday 4 October 2016.

    Privatised probation staff: stressed, deskilled and facing job cuts …
    https://www.theguardian.com › Public Leaders Network › Prisons and probation
    23 Feb 2016 – But despite strike action and fierce lobbying, the privatisation of more than half of the probation service in England and Wales has gone largely …

  • Ben – I understand the principle of what you are saying, but in practice would this help? Any employer is likely to want to see a CV or discuss your work experience and employment history before giving you a job, and an unexplained gap will be noted. They will also probably want references.

    When a prospective employer asks what you were doing for 18 months during 2015/16, and you were in prison, should you be allowed to lie about it? Or should the employer be banned from asking?

  • ethicsgradient 9th Dec '16 - 1:48pm

    A really good article.

    Everyone deserves a second chance. Re-offending is massively reduced if an offender can get a stable job. This leads to routine and a more stable life/social interactions.

    Records need to be kept but for most jobs, as long as the time has been done and the person has reformed then leave the past where it is and give a clean slate.

  • Nick Baird, three things:

    1) Many employers at the moment have a box on their application form asking about criminal records. This means that people are disregarded without even getting to defend themselves or showcase their CVs. If you got rid of criminal record checks, this would change, even if people chose to disclose their convictions at a later stage.

    2) Many less skilled jobs don’t necessarily require a full employment history, but do check for criminal convictions.

    3) Saying that you have been unemployed for 18 months still might make you more employable than saying you have been in prison.

    Bottom line is that people have a right to privacy, and shouldn’t have to give employers information which freezes them out of the jobs market.

  • You may not be aware that the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 already wipes the slate clean for most minor offences within a short space of time, and even serious ones eventually. It allows people to refuse to disclose historic convictions on their CVs or on application forms. There are exceptions for certain kinds of occupation such as licensed professions and teachers. There may well be a case for reforming the time limits for specific offences but what is proposed isn’t novel.

  • Ethicsgradient 9th Dec '16 - 3:53pm

    @David,

    Your right. But I ‘think’ spent convictions would still show up even on a standard dbs check. I am not sure though and it is not a subject area I know much about.

  • I’m aware that the rehabilitation of offenders act allows many convictions to become spent after a period of time. That’s not what I’m arguing for. I don’t want them to exist at all (except in extremely unusual circumstances).

  • John Peters 9th Dec '16 - 5:42pm

    What you want to do is force your opinion on everyone else. Is that liberal?

    If an employer wants to take into account an applicant’s past that should be up to them.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 9th Dec '16 - 9:24pm

    Ben

    If this is party policy I could not support the party ! David Raw is correct on it being a vote loser . It is also a membership loser. Wrong in principle and practice.We are in an era when any old busybody can view anything courtesy of successive governments . To have a society that allows viewing of such , but not criminal records is nonsense.

    Protection is why we have these checks . You care so much about the rights of those who have done wrong that you ignore the safety of those who haven’t.

    It is the rights of the innocent , good and vulnerable I want to protect. If this were policy I would vote Conservative.

  • Ethicsgradient 9th Dec '16 - 9:44pm

    Records would still be kept.

    I think Ben’s point is to allow someone to have made amends and be able to move on an make a new life for themselves rather than sliding back into criminality because there are no positive options to take.

    Should someone be punished for the rest of their life when the have already paid their dues for the crime by serving the time set by a judge?

    Crime, punishment and reforming are tough areas to deal with,l. Few easy options.

    Fundamentally I feel people should be given a 2nd chance. It’s a difficult silubject though.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 9th Dec '16 - 10:20pm

    A second chance would be fine , if the offender is released with a view to that being the desire . Of course that would and should be so . But for hard core violent criminals I want protection from them as much as anything or far more.

    Ben says the criminal justice system ruins the lives of offenders. No, it is often ruining the lives of victims by letting them see criminals who have done terrible things get very lenient sentences. Such criminals ruin lives. Liberals should be for the underdog . This means for the victim first.

    There is a great deal to be had from a constructive policy that reorients the lives of those who have done lesser wrong in their criminal pursuits. They need help . But the loved ones of the murdered victim needs more than help when watching the murderer walk free after a decade and a half in jail .The rape victim the same after very few years and a programme for the perpetrator as a substitute for a punishment.

    When we route for the victim more than we do as a society , articles like this would carry more weight.

    Thank goodness for people like Greg Mullholland, who had the satisfaction of seeing years of campaigning for tougher sentences for drivers that maim and kill , come to be.

  • There seem to be three concerns with my argument.

    1) “It won’t solve the problem/there are other ways of rehabilitating offenders.” Certainly. But I wouldn’t underestimate just how crippling unspent convictions can be for people seeking work. Yes they may still have gaps in their CV regardless, but this at least gives them a better chance either to explain themselves, or to get a job which is less scrupulous with regard to CVs, but does still ask about criminal records under the status quo. These jobs do exist, I’ve seen them 🙂

    2) “This is just you illiberally forcing your opinion on everyone.” As with all arguments about liberalism, this can be looked at the other way. For me, it is a violation of ex-offenders freedom to force them to tell employers about crimes they committed which they have served their time for. People have a right to privacy after all. Criminal record checks also ineffective for society, as I’ve argued.

    3) “It’s unfair on victims/puts people in danger.” Absolutely not. One of the key aims of rehabilitation is to prevent future crime. Reintegration does this. Yes it means that people may be working alongside ex-offenders without their knowledge, but people interact with ex-offenders all the time without knowing. They might be housed next to you, go to your pub, have kids at your school. The bottom line is that we can’t just banish these people from society, it doesn’t help anybody. They need to reintegrate with other people and have a chance at a clean slate, or else it is so much more likely that they will reoffend. Allowing people to reintegrate into the job market is a crucial part of their rehabilitation, which is in turn, a crucial part of protecting potential victims from crime.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 9th Dec '16 - 11:55pm

    Ben

    Under no circumstances do I doubt your decency and ability to develop a reasonable case.Where in your efforts for criminal justice is the pleading for the victim. Do you speak on that , campaign for them , argue their plight ? When or if you do , I shall listen to you more keenly , though, believe me , I am listening already .

    I F THIS PARTY SPOKE FOR THE VULNERABLE AND INNOCENT AND THE VICTIM AS WE USED TO MORE WE WOULD BE ON BIG PERCENTAGES OF VOTES AND RIGHT MORALLY ! DOES NO ONE SEE IT ?!

  • Richard Underhill 10th Dec '16 - 8:32am

    A Dutch comment please.

  • Of course I’m concerned about the victims of crime. I don’t see what I have said to make you doubt this? I very much believe that this policy would reduce crime and protect future victims, as I said before.

    As for Holland, I’m aware that they have had a lot of success in their criminal justice system. They do lots of the right things, fewer long sentences and better mental health treatment for offenders. These things crucial and I wish we did them here. I support my policy in addition to these sorts of policies.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 10th Dec '16 - 1:28pm

    Ben

    It is what you do not say . As above , “fewer long sentences ,” not a word on the need for a few very long and longer sentences ! There is this feeling that , with the exception of mps like Greg Mullholland , and , of old , Simon Hughes, and Nick Clegg when Shadow Home secretaries, no one mentions the need for what is the other side of the same coin, free the prisons of those who should not be there , BUT, MAKE IT SO THOSE WHO SHOULD , ARE THERE AND FOR IT TO BE A PUNISHMENT AND DETERRENT

  • I mean I said “fewer long sentences”… that of course implies that some people should still have long sentences. I never even suggested the contrary.

    If you think our mps aren’t doing enough for victims then that’s obviously not good. But I don’t know how that has anything to do with me. Do you just want me to insert an obligatory comment in my article which we’d all agree with about how awful violent criminals are and how our heart goes out to victims?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 10th Dec '16 - 7:46pm

    Ben, you have related well on this thread , I thank you. I do not want token gestures, more a broad approach . I can move towards your view if I feel you engage with the concerns I explain are very important , more than any . I believe you are thoughtful and able . Let’s add sensible and remember what our colleague David Raw , to the left of me but someone of values I respect , this is in my view the wrong policy for the right reasons , a vote and membership loser. We can do what you genuinely yearn to achieve by declaration later in the process or much earlier in prison, allowing the Timpson s of this world to do such good work.

  • Peter Andrews 11th Dec '16 - 11:50am

    I actually totally agree that ex-prisoners should not have to disclose their convictions on all job applications. Making them do so is a sure fire way of ensuring they will not gain lawful employment so they will be far more likely to reoffend.

    I would not get rid of criminal records as such but just restrict who has to be told about them to jobs which already require a DBS check

  • Peter Andrews 11th Dec '16 - 11:54am

    Oh and by the way I speak as someone who is due to go to court as a victim of a burglary where two burglars broke into my house whilst I was in it (I was lucky they chose to leave when I confronted them). They are basically career criminals, both have been in and out of prison and basically probably know of no other way to try to make a living. If they had a better chance of getting a job then maybe they would not have chosen to go robbing to make some money.

  • Sorry for the late reply guys. Thanks Lorenzo for your nice words and I’m glad that you agree Peter. I agree with you in that my issue is with potential employers having access to these records rather than them not existing anywhere. I’m glad that you believe this despite being a victim of such a nasty crime – I’m sorry that you went through that.

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