Thousands of people are at risk of being unfairly barred from their jobs because of mistakes in their youth, campaigners have said, as new data shows childhood offenses were disclosed in more than 11,000 checks criminal records last year.
Politicians and justice activists are calling for reform of the criminal record check system. They say the widespread dissemination of minor historical offenses does not protect the public and leaves no room for people to wipe the slate clean.
More than a third of childhood offenses listed in Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) certificates in England and Wales in 2021 happened more than 40 years ago. The oldest was a 74-year-old man convicted of larceny (petty larceny without violence).
Thousands of people are also required to disclose decades-old adult warnings and irrelevant historical offenses in routine criminal record checks each year. Caveats were issued in more than 23,000 DBS certificates last year, more than 8,000 of which were a decade or more old.
The government data was released under the Freedom of Information regime at FairChecks, a campaign backed by legal charities calling for reform of the system. It calls for an end to automatically revealed warnings during checks; to wipe the slate clean of childhood crimes and stop forever forcing people to reveal short prison sentences.
Penelope Gibbs of FairChecks said: “For too long criminal record check reform has languished in the ‘too difficult’ box. Of course we need some checks. But our disproportionate system is ruining lives by forcing people to disclose relatively minor crimes to their employers decades later.
“Rehabilitation is about enabling people to move on with their lives. The government could facilitate this by making forensic audits fairer.
A Supreme Court ruling meant the rules were changed in November 2020 so that warnings for under-18s were no longer automatically issued – although adults still were. But youth convictions, including those so minor that they result in a community or suspended sentence, are still automatically released in DBS certificates. These should stop appearing in the most basic checks after five and a half years, but continue to be issued on enhanced certificates.
Shami Chakrabarti, the former shadow attorney general for England and Wales, said disclosing childhood offenses and historical warnings hurts people’s life chances and is a cause for concern for the Lords.
“There has been a huge push to encourage people to accept police warnings over the past few decades without proper legal advice. And those caveats then lead to greater legal and practical consequences for their lives in the years to come,” she said.
“It does not help us to rehabilitate people. It’s all part of turning more and more citizens into suspects. »
The criminal record check system was tightened after the Soham murders in 2002. Ian Huntley, who murdered schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, had been reported to police six times for sexually assaulting underage girls, but was still allowed to be a school custodian.
The reforms were designed to make it easier to identify potential predators and prevent them from working or volunteering with vulnerable people. But there are fears that the wide dissemination of irrelevant historical convictions, especially in the tighter checks, will prevent people from rebuilding their lives.
Those who work with young or vulnerable people are subject to heightened vetting, which means police can disclose even minor, decades-old interactions that have not resulted in any charges.
Wera Hobhouse MP, Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson, said: ‘The government must commit to reforming the rules on disclosing criminal records so people don’t have to report old and minor convictions not relevant that could have an impact on their future.
“These figures prove that the government’s ‘get tough’ approach to crime simply does not work.
“If the Conservatives really wanted to reduce crime rates, they should put dignity and respect at the heart of our criminal justice system.
When crimes are “past” they no longer have to be automatically disclosed, but many employers, such as schools, nursing homes and hospitals, require more extensive background checks.
Any offense resulting in a prison sentence, even if suspended or committed in childhood, will be disclosed for life under all but the most basic controls.
This means that thousands of people must report very short sentences, for example for petty theft or drug possession, for life. In 2020, 6,500 people were sentenced to less than a month in prison.
More than 31,000 reports detailed prison sentences last year, more than a quarter of them suspended.
The Department of Justice said: “Protecting the public is our number one priority and those convicted of the most serious crimes will have life sentences.
“At the same time, low-level reformed offenders shouldn’t be held back by their criminal records, which is why we’ve already reduced the time it takes for their sentences to be served.”