Retention versus rehabilitation

There’s news today about five UK police forces who appealed against a ruling that they should delete information about criminal offences from their databases. According to the appeal court judges:

“If the police say rationally and reasonably that convictions, however old or minor, have a value in the work that they do, that should, in effect, be the end of the matter”

With all due respect to their Lordships, I don’t think it should.

They found that if the data retained could be of use to the police, no matter how old or minor the offences in question, then retention was permissible.

Let’s look at the question of ‘minor offences’ first. In one instance cited in court, the police still held a record of the theft, in 1984, of a 99p packet of meat – for which the offender was fined £15. Under those circumstances, keeping a record of the offence 25 years later is surely just disproportionate.

But what of the age of the offence? This is the aspect I find most confusing, and in conflict even with the police’s own FAQ database. Here’s what that says about spent convictions. It clearly states that the purpose of the 1974 Rehabilitation of Offenders Act is to ensure that former offenders’ lives are not permanently blighted by their past actions if they are subsequently law-abiding. It also notes that there are circumstances when a conviction may never become spent (if it has resulted in more than 2 1/2 years in prison), and that for some kinds of work (such as work with children or vulnerable adults) you may have to disclose past convictions even if they are spent. Those conditions aside, though, the website is unequivocal:

“a person who has spent convictions does not have to disclose the conviction to prospective employers”

And there’s a page which says that, if you have been given a caution, that caution is considered to be spent immediately:

“This means that if you are asked on an application form if you have a caution you can reply ‘no’. “

There’s even a page on the Police FAQ which explains what you can do to request that information about spent offences be removed from the record.

The Police FAQ also links to this Liberty table, which sets out the time-table according to which different offences are regarded as spent. In the case of the person fined £15 for taking the packet of meat, that would have been 5 years, halved to 2 1/2 years because the person was under 18 at the time of the offence. And yet, information about the offence is still on the record, 23 years after it was legally non-existent.

Let me just repeat their Lordship’s ruling:

“If the police say rationally and reasonably that convictions, however old or minor, have a value in the work that they do, that should, in effect, be the end of the matter”

Dickens had Mr Bumble assert that “the law is an ass”. In this case, though, the law appears to be quite sensible and clear. The same can’t be said for the way in which it has been interpreted.

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