AN ORGANISATION working with former prisoners is calling for an overhaul of the spent convictions bill amid claims it is preventing reformed criminals access employment.
Sheila Connolly is Director of the Cork Alliance Centre, which supports people in making a fresh start after prison. She described the current legislation as ineffective for the majority of her service users. She added that former prison inmates are not being provided with the chance to turn their lives around decades after a conviction.
This follows a government consultation, launched by Justice Minister Helen McEntee, who welcomed views on what type of sentences should merit a spent conviction. The number of convictions - and length of time before a conviction can become spent - was also addressed.
Now, the government has expressed its support, in principle, of a private member’s bill to expand the spent convictions regime which would include the removal of a restriction where only one conviction outside of minor driving and public order offences can become spent.
The Criminal Justice (Rehabilitative Periods) Bill 2018, introduced by Senator Lynn Ruane, cleared its final stage in the Seanad at the end of last month with unanimous support. Ms Connolly welcomed the move.
“Obviously, this isn’t going as far as we’d like but it is going in the right direction,” she said.
“That overly punitive current justice system doesn’t offer realistic accessible opportunities.
These are really positive moves as far as we’re concerned, we need to continue to expand the spent convictions footprint to allow for more people to benefit from it and transition better into a space where they are no longer judged on their past but on their current lives and future plans. It’s a long road but the important thing is that we are on that road.”
The current (2016) legislation restricts the convictions that can become ‘spent’ after a certain time period to those involving a custodial sentence of up to 12 months, or a non-custodial (e.g. suspended) sentence of up to 24 months.
A 2018 Bill, currently before the Oireachtas, would expand the custodial sentence restriction to 24 months and the non-custodial to 48. It would also increase the maximum number of offences that can be expunged from one to two.
Ms Connolly said she feels the 2016 legislation is too restrictive. She is also calling for the introduction of rehabilitation certificates or a court order declaring that a person with a conviction is now rehabilitated.
“The majority of people that we work with have more than one conviction so the current convictions bill doesn’t apply to them,” she said.
“What we are looking for is some sort of process where people can prove they are rehabilitated similar to those you see in other countries. This could be done through something like a certificate of rehabilitation which constitutes the application for a person’s record to be wiped clean.
"Of course, if these are very serious crimes then this has to be addressed separately. What we are looking at is the main cohort of offences and how those convictions can be realistically removed.”
She said that a change to legislation may contribute to a fairer and safer society.
“People need to be given the opportunity to repair the harm and take responsibility. If we allow people to change we can create safer and fairer societies.
"It’s important that change is recognised and valued in order to celebrate that connected recovery. In relation to employment. people will often look at the convictions but they are not prepared to see what they have done in the meantime to turn their life around. We have to look at other European countries to see that this works.”
Ms Connolly said that the people she supports, who have spent convictions, are still often questioned about them when applying for necessities like car insurance.
“People find they are haunted by their past. When someone is asked about spent convictions that’s a very difficult space for them to be in. It begs the question of why someone would be given the right to ask for this kind of information in an application when some other countries have made it illegal to do so.”
“We need to examine what is practical and see how we can affect change to ensure rehabilitation. With the right support, these changes could result in a reduction in crime. The best way to explain this is to ask someone to describe the worst thing they have ever done. Then imagine what it would feel like if you had that incident brought up every time you achieved something good in life. That feeling of dread comes up for people in these situations time and time again.”