Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce will be in home detention until July (© Rex Features)
Read Vicky Pryce’s on why she thinks the prison system isn’t working
On 13th May, Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce were released from their two-month prison spell, part of their eight-month sentences for perverting the course of justice. It will not have been what they envisaged when they swapped driving penalty points—an offence that 12 per cent of drivers would be willing to commit, according to a 2006 poll.
But leaving prison, and the end of their home detention in July, will not mean a return to normality. In theory, having a criminal record in Britain should not prevent a person from doing much, unless it is for violent or sexual offences. But in practice, the legal obligation to disclose a record, and the discrimination that follows, restricts access to everything from jobs to insurance, loans and travel. That has a huge impact on former prisoners—contributing, some argue, to Britain’s exceptionally high re-offending rate.
This has been recognised in recent legal changes. But in striking a balance between the public’s wish to know about criminal records, and the need for offenders to rebuild their lives, the law still does too little for former prisoners.
In most formal circumstances, offenders are legally obliged to declare a conviction when asked, until it becomes “spent”: currently this takes seven years for sentences of up to six months and a decade for sentences of up to 2.5 years. Sentences longer than that are never spent. This may entail disclosing a conviction to employers, insurers, landlords, financial services providers, education institutions, visa and adoption agencies and others.
On top of this, employers can request a standard criminal record check—where convictions show up for life—for certain jobs within the health, financial, security and legal sectors. This also includes cautions, which are given without trial when the offender accepts responsibility for a minor offence such as writing graffiti. Jobs involving working with children or vulnerable adults require an enhanced criminal record check, which includes all convictions, cautions and any other information held by police forces that is considered “relevant,” including, potentially, crimes of which a person has been a victim and occasions when officers have visited an individual’s address.
In some cases, a criminal record is an absolute bar to an…