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Reforms planned to help rehabilitate offenders

Scotland's criminal justice system is in a bind of its own making.

Recorded crime is at a 39-year low but the prison population has risen by two-thirds over the past 20 years to reach a record high. In June 2012, when official figures were last published, 8178 people were behind bars on a typical day, each costing the taxpayer more than £32,000 annually to maintain in prison.

This state of affairs is often justified on the basis that victims of crime deserve to see offenders punished and that, if a criminal is locked up, they cannot steal or run amok. The long-standing problem, however, is that it is notoriously difficult to prevent criminals from reoffending on their release.

Finding and holding on to a job is one factor that is strongly associated with reduced reoffending among ex-prisoners. Having a stake in society and the support that comes with a job can, and often does, transform attitudes to crime. Making it easier for ex-offenders to find work should make communities safer and ultimately cut the prison population.

That is why there is great merit in proposals to increase the number of prisoners who can eventually have their prison term expunged from their records, thereby making it easier to make a break with their criminal past and start afresh. At present, anyone sentenced to more than 30 months in prison is required by law to disclose this to would-be employers for the rest of their working age lives.

Unsurprisingly, many potential employers rule them out as candidates, even though they may be motivated to work hard and prove their reliability. There was a view among some of those consulted by the Scottish Government that more ex-offenders who had turned their back on crime should have the chance to one day strike their time in prison from their official record, perhaps all those sentenced to up to four years. There was also a consensus that 10 years after release from prison, or seven years for those sentenced to six months or less, was too long for a former offender to have to disclose their conviction.

These proposed reforms make sense. The exact cut-off point for which prisoners should be eligible for rehabiliation should be carefully considered, as should the period for which their conviction remains live, but it seems fairly clear that, for those who have served their sentence and kept on the straight and narrow since, there is more to be gained by helping them to wipe the slate clean than from forcing them to carry the albatross of an old conviction around their necks for their entire working age life.

That does, however, come with an important caveat. In most cases where someone has been convicted of a sexual or violent offence, it is completely appropriate for employers to have access to the full facts, even years after the event, especially if those convicted of more serious crimes are made eligible for rehabilitation. The main determining factor when deciding whether or not someone's conviction should be expunged ought to be the risk they pose.

A careful balance must be struck, but it is clear that the current out-of-date rules are ripe for reform.

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