Should you have to pay the price for crime your whole life?

Twenty years ago a friend’s daughter- then just 16 years old- was caught up in a group fight outside her school. The police arrested them all and she was convicted of “violent disorder”. Now the daughter promotes sport in schools and that old conviction is revealed every time she has to show her DBS criminal records check. She’s had to discuss that youthful mistake hundreds of times, because of the DBS check. She is not proud of being involved in a fight and accepted her punishment at the time, but should it still define her?

Defenders of our criminal records system say no smoke without fire. That every single crime committed shows a propensity to commit crime, so employers have a right to know. Our current system reveals a lot. The government DBS agency issued 5.7 million criminal records checks last year. Anyone who wants to be a teaching assistant, taxi driver or hospital volunteer must get a standard/enhanced DBS check. That check reveals a motoring conviction received four years ago, a caution for possessing a small amount of cannabis five years ago or a suspended sentence for theft served thirty years ago. The DBS computer spews out results automatically, regardless of the circumstances of the crime, or whether you have reoffended since.

Many employers are forced to ask for and pay for these checks but are given no advice on how to interpret the information. They are not told how common it is to get into trouble with the law (1 in 6 adults has a criminal record), nor that most people who get a caution or conviction turn their lives around and do not get into trouble with the law again. No wonder so many employers are put off giving a job to someone with a criminal record, however old or seemingly irrelevant that record – a survey found that almost half of all employers wouldn’t consider hiring someone with a criminal record. Though employers are crying out for new recruits, those with criminal records have least chance of getting the plum roles: “having to disclose a conviction can create an almost insurmountable barrier to accessing many careers”.

England and Wales now has one the most extensive criminal records systems in the western world. No other democratic country reveals so much to employers about its citizens’ misdemeanours for so long. Even the USA is more progressive. Most individual US states offer an opportunity for someone to seal or expunge their record – to wipe the slate clean. It works. In Michigan 96 per cent of those who have their criminal record sealed are not convicted of any crime within five years.

In USA, groups on both right and left lobby for criminal records reform; the left view criminal records as discriminatory for minorities, while the right believes the power of the state to punish should be limited. Oddly, criminal records reform is not a key conservative cause in England and Wales. There has been a little positive change since 2010. The information which is revealed in enhanced and standard DBS has been somewhat restricted because the government lost a supreme court case. The Police Crime and Sentencing Bill, currently reaching its final stages in parliament, prevents some ex-prisoners having to reveal their crime to any employer after a certain number of years. But the Bill itself will create a big increase the number of criminal records checks through the new sentences it proposes, and the Home Office has just announced a review of the DBS system which promises to extend its reach still further.

My charity is involved in a new campaign: FairChecks. Of course, we need a system of criminal records checks. Schools and hospitals need information on the record of prospective employees. But they need to know about serious and recent crimes, not old and minor ones.

For instance, thousands of people accept police cautions every year. These are given out for crimes which it’s not in the public interest to prosecute. People often accept cautions for things like breaking a window (criminal damage), shoving someone aside (common assault) or shop-lifting when drunk. Cautions are controlled by police – there is no court process and often no lawyer. Those accepting a caution may accept it because it seems like an easy option. They have no idea that it will come up on their record for months, if not years. FairChecks advocates for cautions for most offences not to be automatically revealed on criminal records.

Our current criminal records system is expensive and bureaucratic. It’s also a blight on social mobility, since it stops able people with chequered pasts from applying for jobs. Caroline is now 50, and more than ten years ago went off the rails, got convicted of assault and criminal damage and went to prison for a short time. She wants to work in a hospital but has been told she has no future in the NHS: “I’m looking for jobs at the moment and I’m basing the whole search on what checks the employer will do, it’s crazy. I know I’m not a danger or a risk to other people. I went through a really bad drunken period when a lot of stuff was going on more than a decade ago. All the wheels came off. And course, I’m angry at myself – how could I be so stupid? But I’ve been punished, I can’t be punished for the rest of my life”.

The Mikado said “his object all sublime was to let the punishment fit the crime”. But is life-long disclosure of old and youthful crime a fair punishment?