I last wrote here about 9 months months ago. Since then there has been a change. New amendments to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act are coming into force this month. Since March 10th, I no longer need to tell many potential employers, insurance companies or other interested parties that I have a record.
This is a huge relief. For me, it’s a massive change. It means I’ll be able to apply for job like stacking shelves in the Co-op or work in an airport. Seventy percent of all jobs now require a disclosure. Now I can apply for far more of them. And get insurance to be a plumber: what’s possible now in the world of self-employment is far greater too.
In many ways, 36 years after my conviction, I now have the right to be treated much like any other citizen. That’s very important to me because that’s just how I want to feel, just like any other citizen. Now the challenge will be to adapt my ingrained ways of thinking about myself, and take opportunities that were previously barred to me.
But let’s not forget that these changes don’t effect everybody. People who’ve been sentenced to more than 4 yrs. are still caught in the same old net. As a society, we are still obsessed with the long past, and with our belief that it is the best predictor of future behaviour. The Government are changing the legal limit on digging into the past lives of others, for such things as insurance and employment purposes. But the changes haven’t gone far enough. There is still a great deal of disproportion in the system. Why should someone sentenced to four years be treated as a whole different category of human to someone who’s served three? What we have is an arbitrary cut-off point; what we need is a system that takes age and maturity much more into account.
As a society, we have a right to expect people to behave better as they mature and grow older. But, again, what we have now is an arbitrary cut-off point at 18, when we get the right to vote. Everyone knows people mature at different rates, and that, often, the pinpoint accuracy of sentencing to reflect exactly the nature and seriousness of the crime is subject to all kinds of vagaries, from the politics of judiciary to the colour of the convicted’s skin.
As we move ever closer to towards a pan-European criminal record system, and the interconnected and international nature of policing and surveillance methods, there is an opportunity to revise these weaknesses and build a system that still protects the public and the employers, but give better opportunities to those who sort themselves out and go on to live more decent lives. It requires three ingredients:
1) The time during which a conviction is unspent and before which full rehabilitation can begin should be linked to both the sentence handed down and the convicted person’s age at the time of the offence. Simply adding their age to the sentence in years gives a much fairer system. E.g. An 18 yrs old sentenced to 3 yrs gets a rehab period of 21yrs, after which time the record is expunged completely, the offences become spent in half that time, 10.5 yrs. Whereas a 40 yrs old getting three years would have a rehab period of 43 yrs and a spent period of 21.5yrs. A 28 yr old getting 14 yrs would have spent conviction after 28yrs and everything expunged after 42 yrs, by which time they’ll be 70. Doesn’t that seem fair enough? The police and courts would retain records for life, and pervious conviction would still be factored into any future sentencing, but those who don’t offend again get to die with a clean record.
2) That employers do not ask about a job applicant’s criminal record until after all the interviews have been completed and they have decided on their favourite candidate. They should never need to ask applicants they were never going to employ about their record. If the chosen candidate has a record that makes them unsuitable, then they are not offered the job and it goes down the line to the second best candidate. I completely accept that an employer has right to know about convictions – but only of their employees. Until you become an employee you are just a member of the general public, and you should have a right to keep your record private. The box on job application forms which asks about criminal records should be banned.
3) Compassion. As a society we often define ourselves by what we hate and won’t tolerate, and that all seems natural and unavoidable. We also define ourselves by our compassion, or lack of it. If you refuse to forgive, you make a prisoner of both yourself and the other, because both become stuck and neither can move on. Everyone has had their struggles, and if they acting out badly during that time, can we not let rest in peace after thirty years? The French call it ‘the right to forget’. Let’s move closer to that.
I’m going to move on now.