January 2020 – We’ve launched the #FairChecks movement to push for a fresh start for the criminal records regime. The #FairChecks movement is calling for the government to launch a major review of the legislation on the disclosure of criminal records to reduce the length of time a record is revealed.

July 2019 – Unlock welcomes and supports plans by the Justice Secretary to make changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. Read our full comment here.

Lord Ramsbotham has a Private Members Bill to shorten disclosure periods. Further progress is pending, depending on government support.

For more latest news, you can:

  1. see the posts at the bottom of this page
  2. click here for a full list of news posts
  3. sign up our mailing list to receive updates by email
  4. follow the latest on Twitter using the hashtag #roareform

The problem

Unlock has long campaigned for fundamental changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (ROA), which is the principal legislation that governs the disclosure of criminal records to employers, educational institutions, insurers and housing providers. Unlock supports the principles of Lord Ramsbotham’s Criminal Records Bill. We believe that the Act is in need of wholesale reform by way of a government review. Changes implemented in 2014 (through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012) focused mainly on reducing rehabilitation periods. However, offences remain ‘unspent’ for too long, sentences of over 4 years in prison can never become spent, and there are fundamental questions as to how effective the legislation is in a society where information can be found online and employers regularly ask people to disclose spent convictions even if they are not entitled to know about them.

Rehabilitation periods are lengthy and not evidence-based

Rehabilitation periods have no basis in evidence and do not reflect the likelihood of reoffending occurring, or allow a person’s progress to be taken into account. Some convictions are never spent regardless of the progress made by the individual. Unlock believes the Act should apply to all people who have served their sentence. Over 7,000 people every year receive a conviction of over 4 years in prison which cannot become spent. Convictions that can never be spent are an invisible punishment that will forever shadow the individual, preventing full rehabilitation and meaningful employment even after completing their sentence. People should have the opportunity to have the positive things they have done since leaving prison recognised in law by allowing them to be ‘legally rehabilitated’. There should be a presumption that no one who is released from prison should face a lifetime of disclosure without the prospect of a review at some point.

Rehabilitation periods are incoherent

Currently, an 8-month prison sentence for ABH becomes spent before a fine and penalty points for speeding. Due to what was intended as a temporary savings provision, motoring convictions that appear on criminal record checks take 5 years to become spent. Other convictions can remain unspent for much longer than their main sentence would indicate because of the way relevant orders (e.g. restraining orders) impact on the spent date.

The legislation is abused

There is insufficient focus on or recourse against employers who breach the law. Unlock is aware of spent convictions being asked about and taken into account by employers without adequate legal remedy available. Employers request ineligible standard and enhanced checks with little fear of sanction. People with convictions and cautions are not adequately informed of the implications of the sentence given to them at court. Neither are they given clear information about their rights with regards to employers asking for information on their offending history. Information remains online long after convictions are spent, which is a real and increasing problem. Unlock is aware of employers finding out about spent convictions via internet searches and discriminating on this basis.

Changes we would like to see

1. Reduced rehabilitation periods: The rehabilitation periods proposed by Breaking the Circle in 2002 (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. The table below sets out the current disclosure periods, as defined by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, alongside proposed changes to these as reflected in Lord Ramsbotham’s Criminal Records Bill.

2. All convictions becoming spent at some point: Determinate prison sentences over four years should have a rehabilitation period and indeterminate sentences should be subject to a review process to enable them to become spent. The government’s response to Breaking the Circle was to propose that the rehabilitation period for sentences of over 4 years as an adult should be 4 years from the end of the sentence, and Unlock supports this.

3. Rehabilitation periods beginning on return to the community: Currently rehabilitation periods begin at the end of the sentence, however Unlock believes the period of time spent in the community without recourse to criminality is the better indicator of change. This would provide an incentive for people to engage with reducing re-offending initiatives. Recall to prison would result in the disclosure period being ‘reset’, strengthening the incentive to desist from crime.

4. Anomalies in rehabilitation periods removed: As above, changes introduced in 2014 by LASPO 2012 have resulted in 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 relevant orders.

5. Introduce a tribunal process: Consideration should be given to how a criminal records tribunal, administered by members of the judiciary, could offer people the opportunity to achieve rehabilitated status through a process of evidence submission. This would include those with indeterminate sentences (such as IPPs) and those who have yet to reach the time-limit required by law for their conviction to become automatically spent.

It is time the government committed to fundamental reform of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, ensuring that more people benefit, sooner, and that the legislation effectively protects against discrimination.

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.

Do you support a fresh start for our criminal records system? Join the #FairChecks movement to help push for reform.

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.

Case studies that support reform

Ian – Despite his conviction being over 30 years ago, and having 25 years of work experience, his employers (a solicitors firm) dismissed him. His conviction remained unspent because his sentence was 7.5 years. His case shows why it’s important to enable sentences over over 4 years to become spent at some point, to protect people from discrimination like what Ian faced.

Useful links, resources and publications

Briefing – Reform of the criminal records disclosure regime (March 2019)

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
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