“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We only have today. Let us begin.” As expressed by Mother Teresa, the idea that you cannot let your past define your future is a source of motivation for many. The problem is that not everybody has a choice.
There are currently more than 11 million people in the UK with a criminal record. The latest research suggests that nearly three-quarters of ex-offenders are unemployed on release from prison, with 50% of employers saying they would not even consider hiring an ex-offender. This amounts to a second sentence for those who have already served their time, often trapping offenders in a cycle of reoffence. The Ministry of Justice estimates the total economic and social cost of reoffending at £18.1bn per year. The criminal records regime contributes to an extortionately expensive revolving door.
As part of my 2017 review into the criminal justice system, I recommended the introduction of a process by which former offenders could have their criminal records sealed. More specifically, former offenders should have their case heard by either a judge or a body like the Parole Board, which can decide whether to seal their record from employers. In doing so, we’d be learning from a system that already works in several US states.
Ironically, the loudest argument against this process is related to the fear of reoffence. Ex-offenders, the argument goes, pose a threat to society, and so employers should have a right to make their own risk assessments. It’s worth emphasising, firstly, that those who cannot demonstrate they have changed would not have their records sealed. Neither would those whose crimes are so serious – be they violent or sex-related – that the judgment body deems their record relevant to employers. Secondly, sealing criminal records from employers does not mean they are sealed in all contexts. Records would still show in situations involving children and vulnerable people, as well as specific work contexts that require high levels of security clearance. Crucially, police and courts would still have access to an ex-offender’s record. The aim is to replace a blunt instrument with a more flexible approach in order to reflect the complexity of criminal justice.
The argument against reform relies on the false assumption that ex-offenders are inherently criminal. The reality is that the likelihood of reoffending spikes when individuals who have already been punished for past crimes are prevented from reintegrating into society through work. Those who have made mistakes but have since turned their lives around should be given the chance to contribute. As a society, we cannot afford to condemn them to the shadows.