Photo: Remo Cassella

Is the criminal records system failing children?

Carmen D’Cruz

Last week, a local newspaper reported on the ‘shocking number of under-13s getting criminal records’. With England and Wales’ system having few distinctions between records from childhood versus adulthood, no way of expunging childhood records, and comparatively broad disclosure requirements, ‘shocking’ about covers it.

As the Standing Committee for Youth Justice’s report Growing Up, Moving On brings home, England and Wales’ childhood criminal records system is especially severe. Unlike many other jurisdictions, the system makes little distinction between adult and childhood criminal records, paying only lip-service to the nature of childhood offending through slightly reduced periods before the latter become spent and eligible for filtering. Children and young people, who are less culpable for their actions and have a longer life ahead, are disproportionately affected. Unlike many others, the system lacks a mechanism for expunging childhood records. Germany and Spain, for example, both allow all sentences apart from life to be removed from a criminal record.

It’s often said that the purpose of our youth justice system is rehabilitation, not retribution. But when it comes to the criminal records system, this seems to be empty rhetoric. Given the broad criminal record retention and disclosure requirements, it’s hardly surprising that young people feel they’re being punished long after they’ve completed their disposal or sentence and, in some cases, indefinitely. Unlock, the leading authority on criminal records in England and Wales, receives thousands of calls and emails every year from people whose lives are blighted by the continued requirement to disclose old and minor criminal records from childhood. The system can rob young people of the chance to move on positively with their lives free of the stigma of a criminal record.

It’s an axiom in criminology that children and young people grow out of crime; offending peaks in the mid-teens before dropping steeply at the start of young adulthood then falling more slowly. But lumbering children and young people with criminal records can disrupt this process. Studies show that a criminal record is likely to hamper job opportunities and that joblessness is a key predictor of reoffending. As it stands, the criminal records system appears at odds with the principal statutory aim of the youth justice system (i.e. to prevent offending) and with the goal of public protection.

On top of all this, the system is impenetrable, often even to frontline practitioners. During our youth diversion workshops, we heard time and again that police and defence lawyers were unable to explain the implications of a criminal record to young people and even provided inaccurate information. In one instance a young person was encouraged to accept a youth caution, being assured, wrongly but in good faith, that it would not show up on a DBS check once he turned 18.

The current system is failing children. England and Wales is in desperate need of a straightforward, child-specific, proportionate system that protects both the public and the child’s opportunity to fulfil their potential.