Belfast Telegraph

Campaign on childhood convictions

Falklands War veteran Simon Weston has joined campaigners in Belfast to call for childhood offences to be wiped from criminal records.

The former soldier, who was badly injured during the conflict in 1982, was convicted at the age of 14 for being a passenger in a stolen car.

Two years ago the charity activist's ill-fated bid to become a Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales was hit by controversy when questions were raised over whether his childhood conviction would prevent him from taking the position.

Mr Weston, who ultimately pulled out of the election race, is backing a new campaign by the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Niacro) urging a change in the law in the region.

He is featured in a new Niacro film produced to launch its Off the Record campaign.

The former Welsh Guardsman said people convicted of youth offences should be allowed to move on and build a life.

"We're talking about old and minor offences, for people who aren't deemed to be a risk," he said. "So why would we deny them employment or education because of something they did as a child?

"The best way to prevent reoffending is through effective rehabilitation, but the current criminal records practice isn't about rehabilitation - it's about revenge."

Also featuring in the video is Bob Ashford, who founded the Wipe The Slate Clean campaign in England and Wales when a fine of two pounds and 10 shillings from 47 years ago for trespassing stopped him standing as a candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for Avon and Somerset in 2012.

"The fine that was issued to me when I was 13 clearly wasn't intended to be a life sentence, and yet nearly 50 years later it's still there on my record," he said.

"There is no argument for why old and minor offences from childhood should haunt people forever. It something that impacts a startling number of people: it's not right, and it needs to change."

The Niacro campaign was launched at an event in the Mac arts centre in Belfast.

It proposes that anyone should have the opportunity to apply to a multi-agency panel to have old and minor offences committed before they were 18 removed from their criminal or police record.

Niacro said the policy was based on a recommendation made in the 2011 Review of the Youth Justice System in Northern Ireland which has not yet been implemented.

The organisation said that currently many convictions become "spent" after a certain period of time, meaning they do not have to be disclosed on basic checks.

However, it warned that even spent convictions - including those received as a child - are disclosed on enhanced checks for people applying for a range of courses or jobs, and can also prevent foreign travel and access to services.

Olwen Lyner, chief executive of Niacro, said: "A criminal record should not be a life sentence, but increasingly we are hearing from the people we work with - including adults - that they are being denied employment, education, training and travel opportunities due to a minor offence committed when they were just a child.

"Perversely, this actually makes them more likely to re-offend, as avenues to move on in life and build a stable career are closed off to them due to this criminal record which, in the case of minor offences, serves little purpose other than to continually punish someone."

Stormont's Justice Minister David Ford said his department was considering an independent review procedure to assess how certain childhood offences could be "screened out" of records.

"I think there is still work to be done, but I think there is now a fair degree of understanding between Niacro and the department as to the broad direction of travel, and I certainly hope we'll be working that through in the coming months," he said.

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