Clean Slate Act needs a good wash

By Paul Charman

Prisoner advocates blast the legislation which was designed to assist former convicts gain employment, writes Paul Charman
Today's job market can be incredibly tough for anyone who has been to prison.
Today's job market can be incredibly tough for anyone who has been to prison.

We're not talking about a carte blanche situation leaving employers with no idea whom they are hiring. Kim Workman

Other adults in the house run for the bus in the morning -- you merely trudge to the kitchen table. You scan the job ads, rewrite the CV, do the housework and book another appointment at Winz...

Welcome to the dreary world of the unemployed -- but there's one a lot harsher. Consider those facing the double whammy of unemployment blues, plus a previous criminal conviction. This group may face a lifetime on the dole rather than merely a few months.

An inadequate Clean Slate Act, is partly to blame for this, say some advocates for former prisoners.

It's just one perspective.

On talkback radio the view more commonly expressed is that former transgressors of the law, who now cannot find a job, have only themselves to blame. The argument goes that they should have considered these negative consequences ahead of committing their crimes.

Fair enough. But there's good reason to temper our desire to "get tough on crims".

In this country the chances of you, or somebody in your family, ending up with a conviction seem quite high.

In 2014 about 70,000 New Zealanders were convicted and sentenced in court -- the lowest total for some time, because most years it's closer to 100,000. About half of those convicted receive community work, home detention, or -- in about 10 per cent of cases -- prison. The rest are mostly ordered to pay fines, or are disqualified from diving.

Such convictions are of enormous interest to prospective employers.

Application forms leave space to list them, the interviewing panel may ask you about them directly and in many cases there's a police check.

The Clean Slate Act 2004 allows you to apply to have offences removed from your record following seven conviction-free years. Once this is done you don't need to tell employers about them.

More than 220,000 people have been eligible for the process since the Act was introduced in 2004, but they're not alone in needing help to rehabilitate. The Act does not cover anyone who has gone to prison for any term or reason, nor does it cover anyone previously disqualified from driving on an indefinite basis.

Wellington alcohol and drug counsellor Roger Brooking says the Act is, "a discriminatory piece of legislation, which needs a good wash".

Corrections expert Kim Workman, from the lobby group Rethinking Crime and Punishment, says the Act seems to assume that all those who serve time in prison will automatically re-offend.

Workman wants it amended to get more ex-crims working.

"We're not talking about a carte blanche situation leaving employers with no idea whom they are hiring," he says.

"In my view a sex offender should not be allowed to work with children, nor a fraudster to work as accountant. Why take the risk?

"But that still leaves so many guys who have served sentences of less than two years for stupid little things, usually crimes committed when they were in their teens or early twenties.

"According to the statistics, for most of them the level of offending drops right down after the age of about 30. Many find a good woman to look after them, they get a job, they have children, they settle down.

"The last thing they need is to have previous criminal convictions continually flashed before their eyes."

Workman says "the right to know" mentality is strong in English speaking countries, leading to prospective employers assuming they have the perfect right to know everything about you. But in Latin countries it's different. In France and Spain, for example, there seems to be more of a 'right to forget'," he says.

"The French have a positive feature, a certificate of rehabilitation for those who can prove they've changed their ways, including testimonials from those who can vouch for them.

"In some American states you need not reveal whether you have had a previous criminal record, not till after you've been offered the job in question. Our so-called Clean Slate Act is out of touch with similar legislation in the rest of the world."

Brooking says he finds the fact that the Act excludes those sentenced to any juvenile detention, prison sentence, or indefinite disqualification hard to fathom. Over 15 years he has worked with many offenders in these categories, all of whom experienced ongoing difficulty in finding work.

"Similar legislation introduced in Australia and the United Kingdom allows offenders who have spent up to two years in prison to have this wiped from their criminal record after a specified period of time."

Brooking believes today's job market is incredibly tough for anyone who has been to prison. "And given that having a job when you come out of prison is the single most effective strategy available to reduce reoffending, it is imperative that needless obstacles to employment be removed.

"If you remove the chances of honest work, the black economy will always remain there as a temptation."

He agrees that much offending is committed by young men aged 17 to 24. "Yes it's true, as time goes by many of the guys I work with move on, have families and settle down as they grow older. But if they spent a brief period of time in a juvenile detention centre or prison in their youth, the Act -- as currently framed -- does not allow them to come clean.

"The convictions that sent them to prison stay on their record for the rest of their lives. They may want to settle down and provide for their families but how are they to achieve this?

"Many former drink-drivers I deal with have no other convictions. Even if a young man gets his drinking under control as he gets older, having been disqualified indefinitely at some point in his youth now hangs over his head for the rest of his life.

"I know of many facing discrimination in the workplace who become so depressed at not being able to get a job that they simply stop trying."

In February United Future leader Peter Dunne called on the government to review clean slate laws, saying the current rules don't do enough to support people who have turned their lives around.

- NZ Herald

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