A moment of insanity, a lifetime of punishment

This post from Paul Clarke is cited in entirety for bringing the issues I am about to comment to my attention. It is an excellent piece written from the perspective of a data wrangler, someone who really knows what they’re talking about when it comes to open data and transparency of process.

This is my response to the original point addressed, that of Will Perrin, among others, calling for the publication of offenders names in addition to their sentences received and crimes committed.

Currently, some offenders names do end up on the web – as a result of local reporters diligence in attending local Courts, a practice which to me seems archaic but someone must have deemed it necessary and to sell newspapers and who am I to disagree.

But they’re not all in one easy to find and search place. Few newspapers even now permalink content. It is as easy for content to drop off the edge of the newspapers website as it used to be for ships to drop off the edge of the world in peoples minds.

If Will and others have their way, the data will never be erased. It will persist for as long as Google retains a cached history and if tweeted will forever remain in the archives of the Library of Congress. Which would be fine, perhaps, if it were not for the fact that we have a little law in this country which says, convictions can be spent. It’s called the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, and unlike the majority of legislation, the clue is most definitely in the name. As Next Step ably assist in explaining, most convictions become spent after 5 years.

The internet doesn’t purge its memory after 5 years. Nor, more importantly, would I imagine that most offenders have the stomach to even try and attempt to force search engines and social media sites to eliminate all mention of their past misdemeanour’s.

So, why is the Rehab of Offenders Act there, I hear you ask? Well, as an ex Probation Service Officer, I feel slightly qualified to comment, though not entirely because I can’t find the statistics I know are there. Leaving your past behind is not easy. Often the people who are most successful at turning their lives around, are those who remove themselves entirely from those they associated with when they were carrying out their convictions – burglary, drug offences, shoplifting, taking without consent. All of these are linked to peer behaviour, and are intricately linked, sometimes to place, sometime to people, and sometimes to drug habit. An offender leaves prison having become clean from heroin, returns to the same place, people, life as before he went into prison and the slide backwards is much easier than if he comes out to a town where he has no networks and no temptations.

It’s this disassociation with habit which leads to success. But once this has been achieved, imagine applying for a succession of jobs and being turned down for every single one. Imagine not disclosing previous convictions because you are not asked to, working your way up in an organisation, getting to the point where a management promotion is inevitable, a police check is carried out and suddenly you’re doubted, all the effort you invested is devalued, because someone is judging you now, not on your behaviour as it has been for the past 3 years, but on the behaviour 10 years before that.

Imagine that you are 17 and shoplifting to fuel a drug habit. You kick the habit with help. You no longer need to shoplift. But you are refused a job ever after in the retail industry because you cannot be trusted. Imagine that you are 21 and involved in and arrested during the student protests. Imagine that following you around for the rest of your entire life and still affecting peoples perceptions of you when you’re 50 and a vastly different person.

To think that a move to publish offenders details will not impact this way on those who initially chose the wrong path but who realised before it was too late it was the wrong path is naive. To compound the challenges faced by offenders to rehabilitate is cruel. To condemn people without faces to a lifetime of persecution and failure, and yes, an assumption of inability to change and turn life around is irresponsible.

I do not believe offenders details should ever be published. Because, quite literally, that’s one Pandora’s box you will never shut again.

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