Off The Record - should minor youth offences be a life sentence?
Current laws on criminal records are counterproductive and damaging – with a wildly disproportionate effect on the prospects of people who committed offences in their youth, according to a local organisation committed to reducing the impact of crime.
NIACRO believes that extant legislation lacks the refinement to adequately deal with people involved with the criminal justice system as a youth – a group that numbers thousands every year in NI.
The voluntary group says both established laws and changes being put in place are detrimental to people who were convicted of minor offences before adulthood and also to wider society.
Therefore it has launched Off The Record, a campaign to allow certain crimes to be removed from consideration in bureaucratic checks.
In April last year Justice Minister David Ford implemented reforms establishing a filtering system, whereby anyone with a single conviction dating from their youth, subject to several conditions, will automatically have this expunged from any job or training checks.
However, NIACRO insists this does not go far enough. As well as issues over time-period delays – the the Department of Justice move requires more than five years to have passed before removal of a conviction – and the stringency of requirements determining which offences can be removed, it also believes the upper limit of a single offence does not offer enough leeway to have an effective process.
Any offence resulting in a custodial sentence – including those which are suspended – are not eligible for removal, and neither is a lengthy list of specified offences including possession of cannabis and breach of the peace – meaning, for example, that any children caught up in recent flag protests would never see their history cleansed.
Although further changes have been proposed, including an appeals system, as things stand they would not significantly alter the outcomes of filtering.
All this occurs in the context of NI’s low age of criminal responsibility, currently set at 10, one of the lowest minimum standards in Europe. The youth justice review also suggested this should be raised to 12, with a view to perhaps raising it to 14 at a later stage, calling the current situation “not internationally acceptable”.
Off The Record has received backing from a number of high-profile campaigners, including Falklands veteran Simon Weston and former Director of Strategy at the Youth Justice Board in England, Bob Ashford.
Both ran for Police and Crime Commissioner positions in different regions of England and Wales during the initial elections for these posts but, despite their suitability for the democratically-elected positions, they each had to withdraw after realising their minor records dating back to childhood made them ineligible.
The DoJ’s filtering system would expunge Simon’s record – he received a fine after being caught as a passenger in stolen car when he was 14 – but would not help Bob.
When he was 13 he walked onto a railway embankment with friends, one of whom was carrying an air gun. Despite at no point holding the air gun himself, after being caught he was charged with trespass and with possession of an offensive weapon. After pleading guilty to both charges he was fined £2 and 20 shillings for each. Although both convictions relate to precisely the same event, the filtering system being put into place would offer him no help.
In 2012 he founded a similar campaign, Wipe The Slate Clean, in England and Wales and has thrown his support wholesale behind NIACRO. Both he and Mr Weston came to Belfast last week to attend the launch of Off The Record.
Off The Record proposes that any adult should have the opportunity to apply to a multi-agency panel to have offences committed as a youth that are both old and minor removed from their criminal record. This suggestion is based on a recommendation made in the 2011 Review of the Youth Justice System in Northern Ireland, which has not yet been implemented.
Currently many convictions are spent after a certain period of time, meaning they do not have to be disclosed on basic checks – however, these still appear on enhanced checks which are relevant for a wide range of courses or jobs.
NIACRO’s view is that such a panel should consist of representatives of the justice sector, social services and the voluntary and community sector.
Guidance regarding the definition of both “old” and “minor” convictions could be drawn up as a frame of reference for the panel, and they would then be able to use their judgement to come to a reasoned decision for each case.
This would allow for anyone in a similar situation to Bob Ashford, for example, to have their offences removed as an impediment to work or training.
David, convicted of criminal damage and disorderly behaviour when he was a youth – meaning filtering would not assist him - is now 24 and trying to build a career.
The young man, who does not want to be fully identified because of the difficulties he has already encountered, says his record has been a heavy weight around his neck. He began applying for work in his late teens and, to date, has only been offered two of the around 150 roles he has sought, saying he was very lucky to be backed by his current employer.
However, he is now trying to move from retail into the financial services sector and, despite years of continuous employment and good references from bosses, this has proved a struggle.
He said: “Its effect on me as an individual has been massive. At times I have just felt useless and that all the hard work I have put in has not been recognised, which leads to a lack of self esteem. I felt pretty low about myself.
“It feels like I’ve had to work a lot harder than most to get where I am. I just keep going and going, but the way things are needs to change. You are being punished again and again for what you did as a child. I’m an adult now, a different person with a different view.”
The 2011 youth justice review itself noted: “It is somehow [sic] perverse that while all the research evidence suggests that providing offenders with stable employment is one of the most powerful ways of preventing re-offending, the current system of informing potential employers of an offender’s criminal history acts as the most potent barrier to accessing such employment. What chance do young offenders have of securing employment when the only entry on their CV is a criminal record?”
NIACRO also argues that society as a whole will benefit: placing extra barriers to employment in front of those with a record makes them more likely to reoffend, therefore reducing those barriers will also reduce the chances of them returning to crime.