Matters Of Debate | Issue 23

Matters Of Debate | Issue 23

We should completely abolish the concept of criminal records

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Affirmative, by Cleopatra

Everyone makes mistakes. For people with a criminal record, those mistakes follow them forever. Anybody getting a job or travelling overseas must disclose their criminal record. This applies far beyond the period of time otherwise dictated for punishment: prison time or home detention.  

The role of the justice system is to allow victims some retribution by punishing the perpetrator and to keep criminals off the streets, and to rehabilitate criminals. 

Although victims need retribution, in order to have a fair justice system the punishment needs to be proportional to the crime. A lifelong criminal record is simply too harsh for most imaginable crimes. The repercussions of having a criminal record punish people far beyond the period of time they are supposed to be punished for. Our democratically elected government decides the allowable lengths of sentences for specific crimes. Why should a criminal record be able to far exceed these limits? 

The prison system removes criminals from the streets once they have committed a crime. Bar very unusual cases, most people will be released from prison at some point. Society accepts this because they’ve already served penance, and because we recognise that almost every person has the potential for rehabilitation. So unless that changes, criminals will eventually return to our streets. Once they do, a criminal record makes them a greater risk to our community. This is because it hinders rehabilitation. Their ability to work is severely limited, because employers are unlikely to hire a criminal over other candidates. If you can’t get a job, or even move overseas to start fresh, it becomes even more difficult for you to integrate back into your community.

People who are poorly reintegrated and rehabilitated are much more likely to reoffend. Without a criminal record, they could look for employment. Employment makes it more likely that the person can afford housing and services to help keep them away from crime. Having a job also gives a person a place in their community. A happy, healthy, employed person is less likely to reoffend. That keeps all of us safer. Criminal records hinder this ideal. Instead of holding the past against convicted criminals, let’s allow them to build the foundations for a better future.

Negative, by The Karate Kid

Criminal records protect society. They allow us to keep ourselves safe from people who have no interest in complying with a baseline standard of socially decent behaviour.

Society is kept safe by having basic standards of behaviour which everybody must conform to. These are formalised in laws and enforced by the justice system. This system keeps all of us secure by discouraging people from doing those things which breach the standard, whether it be murder, theft or driving drunk. The majority of us are law-abiding, and prepared to commit to this standard for the benefit of all. Why shouldn’t we be able to judge those who have chosen not to? In doing so they harm all of society. We should be able to hold that against them. There’s no reason that they should be allowed an administrative clean slate, when their moral slate is anything but clean.

For many people criminal records also show a pattern of behaviour, which should be taken into account when they appear before a court. A person who has 14 previous drink driving offences shouldn’t be treated with the same leniency as someone with one. The latter has breached the social contract, sure, but the former has breached it over and over again. Criminal records allow us to take that into account and escalate the punishment accordingly. The courts shouldn’t treat every case as isolated. Repeat offenders deserve a more severe response. Criminal records make that information available. 

Criminal records are also a critical way for people to keep themselves safe. Employers deserve the discretion to decide whether they want to be in close contact with a convicted criminal. Employers inevitably have to put some degree of trust in their employees, who can make or break a business. Being able to check criminal records allows employers to protect themselves. It also allows them to protect others. A convicted sex offender should not be able to teach in a school. We are better able to protect ourselves and everyone in our society when we can identify the people who already have a history of doing harm. Criminal records need to stay, for the safety of everyone.

This article first appeared in Issue 23, 2016.
Posted 1:14pm Saturday 17th September 2016 by Otago University Debating Society.