Why the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act must be improved

Elliot Tyler
Thursday, 16 July 2020

Some basic maths proposes that if an adult defendant in a magistrates court receives a sentence of seven months, for even a driving offence, the consequence will be potential unemployment for eight times that, under the current law forcing disclosure of convictions to employers.

 A sentence of fifty months carries an even harsher repercussion: namely, potential unemployment for life.

That’s a little disproportionate, surely?

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (known commonly as the ROA) has a primary purpose of preventing a lifelong blot on a person’s record due to a relatively minor offence committed in their past. ‘Rehabilitation periods’ are outlined in the Act, automatically determined by the sentence, ranging from two to seven years. After this period, if the person has been in no further trouble then the conviction is ‘spent’ and, for most intents and purposes, it does not exist. 

The ROA is meant to focus on rehabilitation, but it places far too much emphasis on public safety, with its rehabilitation periods being excessive and impractical. The public must be protected, but that is where the Exceptions Order comes in, rightly exempting certain professions from the withholding of previous convictions. Those wishing to work in a multitude of roles, including with children, in the justice system, as a doctor, as a taxi driver, or even for the Football Association, are not helped by the Act and must declare their past for life.

The content of the Act itself is complex and inaccessible to the public as a result. It is paramount for the legislation to be readable, and the rules regarding disclosure, rehabilitation periods and spent convictions should be clear and concise. It is imperative that, in a time where employers are more willing to consider ex-offenders, the Act can be understood by both employees and employers, neither of whom generally have a legal background.

Sentence inflation, a gradual increase in the length of sentences over time, has been found by the Justice Select Committee to exist, with the charity Transform Justice attributing this to seven key reasons. The average sentence for all indictable offences inexplicably rose by more than 15 per cent during the period 2008 - 2018. Legislation has not kept pace with these changes in sentencing, and, as a consequence, there is an urgent need to update the ROA’s rehabilitation periods. I consider sentence length to be decent criteria to judge the potential for reoffending, as do other experts I have spoken with about this. 

Another method for demonstrating a person’s rehabilitated status includes the provision of ‘certificates of rehabilitation’, which exist in other jurisdictions. Looking at individuals on a case-by-case basis undoubtedly has advantages, and will reward those who have made considerable effort in turning their lives around.

Of course, I still haven’t explained why improving the ROA, and related laws, would be valuable to society as a whole. According to UK Research and Innovation, 75 per cent of former prisoners re-offend within nine years of release, and 39.3 per cent re-offend within the first twelve months. I was told by the economist Vicky Pryce, that jobs and education are the most important factors in turning lives around. It seems abundantly clear that by preventing those with criminal records from gaining meaningful employment, you will only lead them to break the law or live off the state forever. The answer is simple: the ROA must undergo a major overhaul for the sake of the community, public and people.

Elliot Tyler is an undergraduate at Portsmouth University who regularly contributes to Inside Time and The Justice Gap