Government should ‘ban the box’ in DBS criminal records overhaul

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The current disclosure of youth criminal records in the UK undermines principles of youth justice and could fall short of the UK’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

That’s according to an influential report published today by MPs, which recommends an urgent review of the filtering regime, including:

  • to outlaw tick boxes asking job applicants about criminal history;
  • to consider removing the rule preventing the filtering of multiple convictions;
  • introducing lists of non-filterable offences customised for particular areas of employment; and
  • reducing qualifying periods for the filtering of childhood convictions and cautions.

Witnesses appearing before the justice select committee highlighted the impact that childhood criminal records have on individuals’ access to employment, education, and housing, and the discriminatory effect on children from the care system and black and minority ethnic (BME) communities.

The committee recommends the Government implements Business in the Community’s Ban the Box scheme to all public sector vacancies and considers making it mandatory for all employers.

Ban the Box aims to delay the point at which job applicants have to disclose criminal convictions, allowing them to be judged primarily on merit.

Committee chair Bob Neill said: “We accept that employers are entitled to know about genuine and relevant risks arising from previous criminal conduct.

“However the clear difficulties in securing employment faced by people with youth criminal records, often for a lengthy period after they have become adults, leads us to conclude that too many employers fail to make an objective and balanced assessment of the relevance of ‘unspent’ criminal offences declared in job applications.”

Neill said the Government’s primary objective in youth justice – to stop people being drawn into crime – was “systematically undermined by the current disclosure regime”.

He added: “Mistakes made as a teenager can follow someone around for decades and create a barrier to rehabilitation, as well as profound problems with access to employment and education.”

In 2014-15, 26% of standard checks by the Disclosure & Barring Service (DBS) and 23% of enhanced checks related to people who were under 18 at the time of a conviction.

The committee also recommends:

  • Lord Ramsbotham’s Criminal Records Bill should be enacted, shortening rehabilitation periods and meaning that prison sentences of more than four years would become spent four years after the end of the full sentence;
  • Considering the feasibility of extending the filtering of childhood offences to the disclosure of crimes committed by young adults up to the age of 25;
  • Allowing chief police officers additional discretion to withhold disclosure, taking into account age and the circumstances of the offences, with a rebuttable presumption against disclosure of offences committed during childhood;
  • Giving individuals the right to apply for a review by the Independent Monitor of police decisions to disclose convictions of cautions.

Some of the recommendations mirror those published last month in David Lammy’s review of the treatment of BME individuals in the criminal justice system. In May, the Court of Appeal ruled against the current process for filtering out less serious or long-standing convictions.

Neill said: “According to the Children’s Commissioner for England there is no evidence to suggest that having committed more than one offence is predictive of a greater risk of continued offending in adulthood.

“On the contrary there is considerable evidence that most children stop offending as they mature. Yet we still have a system which works to prevent children from moving on from their past and creates a barrier to rehabilitation.”

He added that the justice committee regretted the Government’s decision to appeal against the recent Court of Appeal decision on the compatibility of the filtering system with human rights standards, rather than tackling the urgent need for reform.

Christopher Stacey, co-director of Unlock, who gave evidence to the Committee, said: “Today’s report from the justice committee shows how the current approach is failing children and young people who get caught up in the criminal justice system.

“Their lives are being dogged by a minor criminal record for decades, often for life, and it anchors people to their past.”

He added: “There is now overwhelming evidence that the Government’s approach to criminal records disclosure needs to change. In the last year alone, there have been three significant reports that together set out the case for reforming the regime while maintaining public protection and safeguarding.”

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