Lord Ramsbotham has introduced a Private Members Bill to shorten rehabilitation periods.

For more latest news, you can:

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The problem

Unlock has long campaigned for fundamental changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (ROA), which is the principle piece of legislation that governs the disclosure of criminal records to employers, educational institutions, insurers and housing providers. Despite reforms to the Act implemented in 2014, there remain significant issues with the way the legislation is both structured and operates in practice. The changes made a huge difference to thousands of people with convictions. However, they don’t go far enough.

Rehabilitation periods remain lengthy and not evidence-based.

Rehabilitation periods are incoherent.

The legislation is abused.


What we think needs to change

We believe that the Act is in need of wholesale reform by way of a government review.

In terms of the changes we would like to see:

  1. All convictions can become spent at some point: Custodial sentences over four years should have a rehabilitation period and indefinite sentences should be subject to a review process.
  2. Reduce rehabilitation periods: The rehabilitation periods proposed by Breaking the Circle in 2001 (and accepted by government in 2003) were based on evidence of re-offending and resulted in recommendations of 1 year for community sentences and 2 years for prison sentences.
  3. Rehabilitation periods are linked to the point of return to the community
  4. Remove anomalies in rehabilitation periods: Changes introduced in 2014 have resulted in serious anomalies in rehabilitation periods. For instance, motoring offences have a five-year rehabilitation period, prison sentences of up to six months have a one-year rehabilitation period. There are also significant anomalies around court orders and compensation orders.
  5. Introduce individual case assessments: For those sentences that have not yet reached the time-limit required by law to become spent, we would like to see a system established that involves an individual case assessment. This would enable people to demonstrate how they’ve rehabilitated in the community, allowing their convictions to become spent earlier than the period set out in legislation.
  6. Introduce tribunals: Consideration should be given to how criminal records tribunals, administered by members of the judiciary, could offer people without fixed disclosure periods the opportunity to achieve rehabilitated status through a process of evidence submission. This would include those with indeterminate sentences (such as IPPs).
  7. Wipe the slate clean: Provision should be introduced to ‘wipe’ criminal records, particularly those acquired in childhood, after a period of non-offending. This was recommended by the 2002 review.
  8. Create a distinct criminal records system for children: Currently, child and adult criminal records are treated in almost exactly the same way. We would like to see a separate system introduced to deal with childhood records to mirror the separate youth justice system, and reflect the unique status of children in society. We support the recommendations made by the Standing Committee for Youth Justice.
  9. Not labelling individuals as offenders: The wording of the Act is stigmatising and implies individuals are “offenders” who cannot be rehabilitated until considerable time periods have elapsed. We would like to see this addressed.
  10. Prohibit employers asking about spent convictions: There is nothing to stop prospective employers asking people about spent convictions. Rather, the onus is on the prospective employee to decide whether to lie. We would like to see it made an offence to ask about spent convictions unless authorised to do so.
  11. Enabling action against employers: It should be possible for individuals to take action against an employer or insurer who takes into account spent convictions when making an employment or insurance decision.
  12. Preventing employers doing illegal standard and enhanced checks: It is an offence to ‘knowingly’ carry out a standard or enhanced check when the role is not eligible for one. However, no employer has ever been prosecuted for doing so. The Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) does not see itself as an enforcement body and appears ineffective at stopping these illegal checks. Effective systems should be established for identifying and stopping ineligible checks and action taken against employers that do not take reasonable steps to ensure checks applied for are eligible.
  13. People are aware of their rights: All people convicted of a criminal offence should be made aware of the Act and offered information and guidance on the long term impact of having a conviction. The information given is poor at present.
  14. Ensure spent convictions are not available online: After convictions become spent, information is still often readily available online, and search engines/news organisations should operate a presumption that this information is removed once convictions become spent.
  15. Reduce eligibility for standard and enhanced checks: A wide number of employers can access standard and enhanced checks. This should be reviewed in full. Exceptions should be granted on the basis of an individual job role, not the whole employer, industry or profession. Criteria for assessing eligibility must be set down by government. Where an exception can be proved necessary, only relevant spent convictions should be requiring of disclosure.

As part of research published in 2016 by the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, we support the recommendations made in that report. In relation to the ROA, the changes proposed to rehabilitation periods following convictions received as a child are that:

  1. Youth Rehabilitation Orders (YROs) should become spent as soon as the order is finished. This would bring YRO rehabilitation periods in line with Referral Order (RO) rehabilitation periods which are spent as soon as the order ends.
  2. Detention and Training Orders (DTOs) should become spent six months after the order has finished. This would reduce rehabilitation periods for DTOs considerably. Currently rehabilitation periods for DTOs are the same as prison sentences. Prior to the 2014 changes (which resulted in harsher treatment for DTO’s), it was as follows: DTOs of less than 6 months are spent 18 months after the end of the order; DTOs of over 6 months are spent two years after the end of the order. The impact of these proposed changes on critical points in the life of a 13-year-old are below.
  3. All under 18 custodial sentences greater than two years and less than four years should become spent two years after the end of the sentence.
  4. Under 18 custodial sentences greater than four years and less than life should become spent seven years after the end of the sentence. Currently, custodial sentences of more than four years for under 18s can never be spent. The threshold at which custodial sentences can never be spent is the same for children and adults. This change would mean that a child’s custodial sentence could always become spent at some point in the future, unless they were on a life sentence.


What we’re doing

We are supporting Lord Ramsbotham’s Private Members’ Bill.

We are building on the original campaign that we had to reform the ROA. We will be sharing our plans soon.


Latest news

See the bottom of this page for our latest posts about this issue.

You can also find below the latest from Twitter, using the hashtag #ROAreform (although we cannot endorse what gets displayed here).


Useful links, resources and publications

Our original campaign – what we achieved

‘Debt to society’ or ‘moral mortgage’? Criminal records and the unintended consequences of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Andrew Henley, 2016)


For more information

  1. Practical self-help information  – We have guidance on the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act on our information site
  2. Personal experiences – We have posts relating to reform of the ROA on our online magazine, theRecord
  3. Discuss this issue – Share your views and experiences on our online forum


Latest posts on this issue

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