Equality legislation must be amended to prevent employers, landlords and other services from discriminating against people because of previous criminal convictions, Ireland’s statutory human rights body has said.
Draft 2018 legislation prevents employers from discriminating against a person with a “spent” conviction, which is a conviction that has been expunged under the Spent Convictions Act 2016.
However the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) believes this provision should be made much broader so that it applies to all criminal convictions and to discrimination in the areas of education, housing and insurance.
The IHREC made the recommendations in its submission on the upcoming Government review of the Spent Convictions Act. It said the Act is too restrictive and is preventing people from accessing jobs and basic services long after they have stopped offending.
Under current legislation a person can expunge a single conviction after seven years as long as they received a maximum one-year prison sentence or a two-year non-custodial sentence. If a person has two or more such convictions, none can become spent.
The commission cited examples it has collected of people being held back by past convictions. These include a person who had been accepted for a job which was later withdrawn when a 20-year-old offence in another country came to light. Another person was refused private rental accommodation because a family member, who did not plan to live there, had previous convictions, the IHREC said. It also cited a person who could not get car insurance due to a 10-year-old conviction, and another who was not allowed finish their college degree because they had run up more than 100 convictions in the past when they were addicted to drugs.
The commission recommended that the limit on the number of convictions which can be expunged be removed entirely.
“It is likely that this limitation has the disproportionate effect of excluding specific groups that may have accumulated multiple offences because of disability (for example, drug and alcohol addiction or, mental health conditions), socioeconomic status, homelessness, etc,” it said.
Provision should also be made for serious offences to be expunged. A review mechanism, such as a court or independent board, should be established to conduct risk assessments on previous serious offenders and make a judgment on the expunging of their offences, it said.
Many of the IHREC's recommendations are echoed by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) which submitted that minor convictions can still amount to lifelong punishment "disproportionate to the gravity of the offence".
The trust said someone with two separate convictions for shoplifting from over 20 years ago would not be able to benefit from the existing scheme “regardless of the circumstances surrounding the offences”.
In a submission, the IPRT has appealed for the legislation not to be based on the number of convictions “but on the time you last offended”. The trust wants sentences of up to four years to be included in the legislation and the limits on the number of convictions that can become spent to be removed.
An IPRT survey completed by 148 offenders found 81 per cent (120) believed having a conviction negatively affected their job prospects. Most had committed the offences in their teens and 20s but those conducting the survey said the respondents “are different people when they get a little older and have a lot to offer society”.
One respondent said: “It’s like a tattoo, I feel branded by this event that happened when I was 18, I’m 42 now and still dealing with the consequences of the conviction.”
Another said: “I was a troubled boy and a drug addict. I am six years clean, have a bachelor’s [degree] and a masters now. Why are my convictions relevant now? I am a different person.”
The trust also calls for the Government to re-introduce Independent Senator Lynn Ruane’s Criminal Justice (Rehabilitative Periods) Bill 2018 as amended in the Seanad in November 2019. The Bill, which fell with the general election, includes many of the measures the IPRT has recommended.
It also calls for young people to be treated as a distinct cohort with a shorter period of rehabilitation before their record is expunged and says it is very difficult to compare the actions of a 19-year-old with those of a 30-year-old.
Executive director of the IPRT Fíona Ní Chinnéide said that "having a criminal record in Ireland, even for a less serious offence, can amount to a disproportionate lifelong punishment.
“By offering the opportunity to make a fresh start by not having to disclose minor old convictions, we can help people turn their lives around and enhance public safety. This is particularly important for young people”.