Teens, Not Criminals: The journey towards a Second-Chance Society

Tal Tyagi - Regular Columnist

Image: Jennifer Heilemann
Following a High Court ruling on the 22nd of January, it has been declared that criminal record checks are ‘unlawful‘ and ‘arbitrary’ because they force those applying to certain jobs (such as teaching and social care) to disclose “minor silliness.” By this the judges meant non-violent offences that have been committed in adolescence. While the Home Office has expressed “disappointment” with this ruling, Tal Tyagi explains why it is essential to enshrine the ruling in law.

I want to take you back to those tumultuous teenage years – the anxious adolescence. Now for some, these years are nothing special but for many of us they were like being drunk. Everyone remembers what you did except you! Many historians argue the ‘teenager’ is a mere social construct – a product of child labour laws and the post-WW2 boom, delaying work and extending education. However, what is more often than not an emotional roller coaster is rooted in biology – in puberty. Both sexes undergo radical physical changes – the start of the menstrual period for girls and the breaking of the voice for guys amongst many other changes.

Lost between the stability of childhood and the sanity of adulthood, it’s a time of exploration – the quest for an identity. Faces turn into colouring books as girls experiment with makeup, spelling tests are replaced by pregnancy tests and having a crocodile on your shirt can mean everything. The rapper Lowkey whose music got me through those years summed it up pretty well: “When I get past the weed smoke, booze, music and girls, I remember myself a young boy confused with the world.”

This lust for excitement and search for the self are all things acknowledged by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. In this leaflet published for concerned parents, they warn how such impulses can lead teenagers to stray into dangerous territory – often outside the law. More than half of young people in the UK have had their first experience of sex before the legal age of consent. Around one in three 15-year-olds in England have used drugs at some point. Those who get in trouble with the police are seldom monsters – they’re just the ones unlucky enough to get caught.

Young people caught shoplifting or involved in drunken pranks are often issued a Reprimand or Final Warning. To avoid the case going to court, the offender signs a statement and this is presented as a ‘slap on the wrist.’ While they often sign the statement in blissful ignorance, believing it will be wiped within a few years, the reality is far more sinister. It stays on file until they are one hundred years of age!

Far from a warning, this can be a life sentence. If you want to pursue a career in a profession that involves being around young or vulnerable people or handling sensitive data, you have to undergo an enhanced DBS check. This will reveal past misdemeanours to future employers. The devastating consequences of this have resulted in broken dreams and ruined lives. A 13-year-old girl who was bullied into stealing £16 worth of lip gloss was caught and reprimanded. Years later after applying for a nursing job, it all came back to haunt her. She was barred after the offence was discovered. Similarly, Edward Thomber, ex-head boy and teenage lacrosse star was caught with 50p worth of cannabis. Before the court hearing, he killed himself on the 22nd of February 2013.

While this may be seen as an overreaction, the young man understood that his life would be made far more difficult with the record. He knew that now dreams would be dashed and doors would be shut.

Isn’t the punishment from both police and parents enough? Instead society continues to punish such ‘offenders’ for the rest of their life, casting them to the bottom of the employment pool.

The classist and racist dimensions of our justice system cannot be overlooked. In parts of the UK, blacks are 17.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched. Who’s more likely to be caught with the joint? Who’s more likely to get in trouble? The double standards are embodied by our very own Prime Minister who himself smoked cannabis at Eton. While at university he was a prominent member of the Bullingdon Club where getting drunk and smashing up restaurants constituted a night out with the lads. But I suppose that’s just “growing up.” Looking back on the dumb stuff we did when we were younger and smiling should be a right, not a privilege.

Fundamentally, young people who have made mistakes should be able to start the next chapter. Instead they are forced to constantly re-read pages of their life that have no bearing on their personalities today. Of course we should be vigilant about those with a history of sexual or violent crime. However, there is a distinct difference between those who were dangerous and those who were dumb. Having come out the other end of youthful idiocy, such individuals would no doubt be the best role models for the young and vulnerable! In a second chance society, we can learn from our own mistakes and impart the wisdom of hindsight to our fellow citizens.

Copyright © 2016 Tal Tyagi. All Rights Reserved.
About Tal Tyagi 6 Articles

Aiming to be principled but pragmatic and creative yet critical, Tal Tyagi is a writer, marketing executive and Politics student at the University of Warwick. He regularly contributes to several publications with a particular focus on international development, security and criminal justice. With experience working in campaigning, in the heart of government education policy and the charity sector, he has ´insider´ political knowledge.