England and Wales have topped a new international ranking of the most punitive childhood criminal records system. The Standing Committee for Youth Justice (SCYJ) last week published a report on the international treatment of criminal records for youths comparing regimes in 16 jurisdictions including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and in the US, Ohio and Texas.
The study looked at serious crimes such as murder or rape and found that, in England and Wales, criminal records for children were treated in the same manner as adults regardless of offence category. However minor a childhood crime, in England and Wales that crime can never be deleted and is kept by the state for life. The report found that a child who offends in England and Wales is not only more likely to acquire a criminal record, but that this record will have a longer-lasting and more profound impact on them as they go on to adulthood.
If a child in Germany or New Zealand is arrested by the police and released with no further action taken, that information is never disclosed on criminal records checks. However, in England and Wales, that information is held locally by the police and may at their discretion, be disclosed on enhanced criminal records. Last year 60,000 cautions and convictions were given to youths in the UK, all of which are attached to criminal records, some of which will need to be disclosed for many years, some of them forever. This is a stark contrast to the statistics in New Zealand where only 48 children under the age of 17 were given a criminal record.
Penelope Gibbs, Chair of the SCYJ, said:
‘A child who has shoplifted a couple of times will suffer the disproportionate penalty of not only having the offences recorded for life, but also having to disclose it at key points- such as entering university or applying for certain jobs, such as a teacher, or a police officer. No other country reviewed inflicts such tough penalties on a child who offends.’
According to the SCYJ, a criminal record acquired by a child in England and Wales could affect that person ‘for longer, and more profoundly, than in any other jurisdiction under consideration’. The group argued that that was the result of a number of factors: England and Wales was ‘relatively rare in making no distinction between records acquired as a child, and those acquired as an adult’; many other countries had entirely separate systems for children and adults for most offences; unlike many jurisdictions, there was ‘no means to “wipe” or expunge a criminal record acquired in childhood in England and Wales’; and our rules on disclosure were ‘relatively unrestricted’ meaning there were ‘few ways to prevent the disclosure of comparatively minor convictions and cautions’ and all convictions could be disclosed for lengthy periods, in comparison to many other jurisdictions.
In Germany, Ohio, Texas and Spain childhood criminal records were held on separate databases to those of adults and such databases had more restricted access.
‘In Canada, Ohio, and Poland, all but the most serious offences committed by children do not attract a criminal record, and in New South Wales, New Mexico and New Zealand, in the main, only the most serious offences committed by children are classed as ‘convictions’ at all – as a result, in New Zealand in 2014, only 48 children under the age of 17 were given a criminal record, and only one child in New Mexico was given an adult sentence and thus a criminal record in 2013/14,’ the report said. By contrast, as set out above, almost 60,000 criminal records were imposed on children in England and Wales in 2013/14.’
Anushka is a pupil barrister at Trinity Chambers