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Criminal Care? · 8 Nov 2018

A childhood criminal record is for life

It is a popular misconception, even amongst professionals, that a childhood criminal record will only affect the child for a limited period of time until that record is “spent”. This is not, in fact, the case. As the MP Teresa Villiers said on Radio 4’s Law in Action report on childhood criminal records earlier this week, a child who receives a criminal record will be “permanently blighted” by that record and it will stay with them for a lifetime.

It is vital that children’s homes staff and other professionals such as the police, youth justice lawyers and social workers are aware of the disclosure consequences for a child of any police involvement, even involvement that does not result in formal action being taken or the child receiving a formal criminal record.

The facts

Records of police involvement with children are retained on government databases until that child’s 100th birthday. The types of records retained include records of cautions and convictions; they also, and this is less widely known, include records of more informal involvement, for example, a record of a call-out to a children’s home that the police didn’t take any action over. There is no provision for records of any childhood involvement with the police to be erased before the person’s 100th birthday. Records of both convictions and police contact that did not result in a formal criminal record have the potential to be disclosed to employers and anyone else entitled to see them for a lifetime.

This is how the system works

All cautions and convictions received in England and Wales are stored on the Police National Computer (PNC) until an individual is 100 years old (except in very rare circumstances). Information is also stored on local police records and the Police National Database (PND). The Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) access the PNC to issue criminal records certificates. The main user of the PND is the police. Police intelligence is held locally and on the PND – this includes “non-conviction” information, such as arrest, acquittals and reports to police. This is held on the PND for a minimum of six years and can be retained until the subject’s 100th birthday[1].

Criminal record checks

There are three types of criminal record checks:  A basic check discloses any unspent convictions and cautions; a standard check discloses all convictions and cautions, spent or unspent; and an enhanced check discloses all convictions and cautions, as well as any police intelligence that is deemed to be relevant by the disclosure officer.  In 2017/18, the Disclosure and Barring Service issued 4.14 million certificates. Over 80 per cent of these were for standard or enhanced checks, mainly enhanced checks, which can include police intelligence.

A childhood criminal record in England and Wales stays with you for a lifetime

Standard checks are needed for a range of jobs including solicitor/barrister, accountant, vet, FCA ‘Approved Persons’ roles, football stewards and traffic wardens. Enhanced checks are required for jobs involving work with children and vulnerable adults, teachers, social workers, NHS professionals, carers and taxi drivers.  A criminal record can therefore either preclude a person from applying for a very wide range of jobs or at the very least it will involve them having to explain their childhood convictions – and potentially the fact that they were in care depending on the circumstances – to potential employers for the rest of their lives.

The charity Unlock, which supports people with convictions and campaigns for system change, recently carried out research into the numbers of people affected by childhood criminal records.[2] Their findings showed how prevalent these kinds of checks are and how many people are affected by records imposed on them during childhood for many years. In the last five years alone on standard/enhanced DBS checks:

  1. Nearly 850,000 people have been affected by the disclosure of a youth criminal record on a standard/enhanced check
  2. Over 3.5 million youth criminal records have been disclosed
  3. Over three-quarters of youth criminal records disclosed (almost 2.75 million) were over 10 years old
  4. Over 2.25 million youth criminal records disclosed were over 15 years old
  5. Nearly 1 million youth criminal records disclosed were over 30 years old.

Other types of disclosure

It’s not just through DBS criminal record checks that police contact can affect a child. Records might be disclosed, for example, in future criminal proceedings against a child potentially affecting the outcome of that case. Police contact might also affect that child in other ways, for example, creating a picture of them that will impact on social worker’s assessments and on placements.

We’re hoping for change …

There has been a lot of campaigning on reforming the childhood criminal records system to make it less punitive. Theresa Villiers MP has received cross-party support for her calls for reform, which include the possibility of some childhood records being wiped. We’re also waiting on a judgment from the Supreme Court which, depending on the outcome, could force the government to take action.

… but until change comes

An understanding of how the childhood criminal records regime works is vital for children’s homes staff and others if they are to appreciate how important it is to a children’s life chances to be protected from police contact and criminalisation. In respect of children’s homes staff, it is incumbent on the children’s homes providers to ensure that all their staff are trained to understand the consequences for a child of police involvement in both the short and the long-term. Staff should know that when they call the police, no matter what the outcome, there will be a police record about that child that will stay with them for a lifetime.

Further advice and information

Just for Kids Law, has produced a comprehensive guide for professionals on the criminal records system. The charity, Unlock, mentioned above, is an excellent source of information and advice through its website and helpline.

To read more about how the criminal record system in England and Wales compares with international systems take a look at the research I carried out for the Standing Committee for Youth Justice in 2016. Growing Up, Moving On. The International Treatment of Childhood Criminal Records highlights how punitive our system is compared to the 16 broadly comparable jurisdictions included in the study.

Claire Sands

[1] Standing Committee for Youth Justice (2017) Growing up, Moving on A report on the childhood criminal records system in England and Wales. London: SCYJ at

[2] Unlock (2018) A life sentence for young people. London: Unlock at


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