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  • Rex Widerstrom

Every sentence a life sentence?

"Do the crime, do the time" is a favourite catch-cry of the "hard on crime" mob. New Zealand has the comically misnamed Sensible Sentencing Trust which is neither sensible nor trustworthy, but every country has something similar - people for whom no sentence is ever long enough. You get the impression that if it were up to them, every sentence would be a life sentence.

But in many countries, it already is. Whether you gave into a youthful, drunken impulse and snatched the tip jar from a cafe counter, or committed cold blooded murder*, it's all recorded in a document that anyone can ask to see. Yes, the right to access it without your permission is restricted to a range - a surprisingly wide range - of authorities. But if you apply for a job, almost any job, the prospective employer can "request" a copy. If you opt not to provide one, let's just say your CV won't be on top of the pile.

In Australia the document is called a National Police Clearance. Nowadays it's rare to find a job that doesn't require production of this insidious document. The cost varies (in Victoria, if they check your name it's AU$47.70; if they do your fingerprints as well, it's $186.40). And in general, the certificate is held to be valid for just six months.

If you have a record as clean as the Chief Justice, too bad - the only way to prove it is with one of these documents, so expect to have to pay for one every time you're looking for a new job.

In some places, it doesn't matter how long ago you committed the offence. In others, you might be able to get old offences erased if you've been good for a very long time. "There is no legislation in South Australia that permits, or requires the deletion of an individual’s offender history. The State Records Act of 1997 prohibits the inappropriate destruction of information unless instructed by a specific retention / disposal ruling. All offender history details are classified for permanent retention" a stern notice from SA Police advises.

Next door in Western Australia "a lesser WA conviction can only become spent if there are no convictions within the last 10 years. A conviction which results in no punishment or a fine of under $500 will not effect this time period. A conviction with a penalty of: • More than 12 months imprisonment; or • A fine exceeding $15,000, Is deemed to be ‘serious’ and can only be spent by the District Court".

So you're either obliged to confess everything to anyone who has something you want - a job, a home, the power to decide your future - or, if you're "lucky", go through a complex and expensive process to have a conviction "spent".

What does that mean? Imagine a young Aboriginal woman. She's a reliable and hard worker, a quick learner and great team member (I know this to be true because I employed her without incident). Unless you can find someone who either doesn't ask for a police clearance, or understands that human beings make mistakes and deserve another chance, your life is over.

A heartfelt plea from a young Aboriginal woman whose working life is over thanks to the need for an NPC

[I debated whether to obscure the bad language but decided not to because it reflects the frustration and anger faced by someone whose entire life is defined by mistakes made earlier in life]

This woman is in her early 40s and, as is all too common in Aboriginal society, a grandmother. Her offences were committed when she was young and subject to the myriad of debilitating social disadvantages that pervade remote communities.

On paper, some look serious - fighting, mostly in public, with the kind of charges you'd expect to come from that - but this was amongst "friends" after bouts of drinking. She's not - especially at this time in her life - going to arrive at work drunk and thump her boss. Again, I know this because I employed her on the basis of an interview and references, backed my judgement, and was rewarded with a quality employee I'd happily re-hire if I could.

She's by no means alone. And at a time when there's sometimes hundreds of applicants for less skilled positions, a negative NPC provides an easy filter to cull the initial numbers - why employ a convict when you can have a "cleanskin"?

Because people are not defined by their past mistakes. Because there's a myriad of reasons why people commit a rash act, which they may never repeat. Because we all change over the course of our lives, learning as we do. And because who hasn't needed a second chance at least once in their lives, even if only from a loved one we've offended?

Without consultation, without assessment of the ongoing impact, without most people even realising it's happened, our lawmakers have made every sentence a life sentence. We've excluded a whole cohort of people from a productive role in society based on mistakes they've made sometimes decades ago, when they were different people. And in doing so we've worsened the very social problems - idleness, poverty, drunkenness, drug abuse - which drive crime, and made society less safe.


Caveat: Yes, you certainly wouldn't want someone with a record for offences against children getting a job at a child care centre. But many jurisdictions have Working With Children Checks to account for precisely that eventuality. Confined to one type of offence in one specific area of employment. You probably wouldn't want someone with repeated dishonesty offences handling large volumes of cash, so asking for an NPC would be appropriate. But I've seen them demanded for office jobs and even outdoor Council work.


* I know a cold blooded murder who shot his wife in the back of the head. After years of the cruellest mental and verbal abuse you could imagine. Then he put down the gun, called the police, and served 11 years as a model prisoner, completing every rehabilitation course with the highest recommendation from the tutors. After six months working with him on his case for an inter-state parole transfer, I'd have no hesitation in having him babysit my grandchildren. One crazy act, committed under specific and highly stressful circumstances years ago, does not define who he is, or even who he truly was.

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