26th November 2022
IPRT Executive Director, Saoirse Brady, writes about the real impacts of lifelong convictions that can follow people for decades. She explains what spent convictions are, where the law currently stands and the opportunities we can act on to change the law for the better.
Read the article on Independent.ie here (paywalled).
Article text can be read below:
There’s an assumption that when someone walks free from prison or finishes their community service, that the punishment is over. This is not the case. Instead their conviction will follow them for years – even decades – and intrudes on every aspect of their life.
Every day activities that most of us take for granted, such as applying for jobs, getting insurance, accessing education, training or work placements, travelling outside the state become insurmountable for those with convictions on their record. This is the case, even if your conviction was decades ago, you are still required to disclose your conviction even if it isn’t directly relevant.
Today, the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) and NIACRO, an organisation in Northern Irleand working to reduce crime and its impact on people and communities, are hosting a cross-border event on living with conviction on the island of Ireland. Both organisations routinely hear from people, of all ages, backgrounds and circumstances who are desperate to move on with their lives.
IPRT hear every day about the circumstances that led them to offend in the first place – they talk about their experiences of poverty, mental health issues, homelessness, addiction. In other cases, they tell us of a mistake they made when they were younger – like possession of a small amount of drugs – which now haunts them in later life. Even when they have not reoffended since, so many people simply cannot see a way forward, with little sense of a future that is productive, stable and secure for their own family. This is impacting families and communities across Ireland every single day.
In 2016, the law changed. A single conviction resulting in a one-year prison sentence or two- year non-custodial sentence was allowed to become “spent”. This means that after a certain period, a person no longer has to disclose their conviction. While welcome, IPRT believes this legislation did not go far enough. It does not help people who committed more than one offence (other than minor motoring or public order offences) in the past, no matter how long ago the offences were committed. It sets a blanket seven-year rehabilitation period for everyone. There is no relationship between the severity of the sentence and the rehabilitation period. It does not consider the special position of young adults. Effective legislation to deal with this can remove the shackles preventing them from moving on with their lives.
Vetting should still be required
To be clear, we are not suggesting that vetting procedures and requirements are no longer needed, or that convictions for very serious offences should not remain on peoples’ records. We are simply calling for legal recognition that all offences exist on a spectrum and suggesting that less serious offences, often relating to a period in a person’s life that they have since moved on from, should not necessarily be disclosed forever and always, in all circumstances.
In 2018, Senator Lynn Ruane introduced the Criminal Justice (Rehabilitative Periods) Bill 2018. It has received cross-party support and the Government has indicated that it would support the Bill with some amendments. The proposed law would extend the ceiling on the length of a sentence that could become spent – from one to two years for prison sentences and from two to four years for non-custodial sentences. But even with these increases, we would still fall behind our European neighbours. The Bill would also remove the limit of the number of eligible convictions that can become spent and take a more pragmatic approach in looking at the length of time since a person last committed an offence rather than how many they committed during a particular period. This is important because we know that often people have more than one conviction during a particularly troubled time in their life. Many of them have worked hard overcoming this difficult period in their lives and now lead law abiding lives.
IPRT is clear that everyone deserves a second chance. If we are serious about encouraging people who have offended to rehabilitate and reintegrate into our society – we must put in place the legal supports to allow this to happen. There is an opportunity now to do exactly this and change the law for the better.
For more on IPRT's ongoing work on Spent Convictions, see here.