Childhood criminal records are undermining positive developments across the youth justice system

Childhood criminal records are undermining positive developments across the youth justice system, says the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, a national alliance of over 60 charities and youth organisations. The SCYJ calls for a wholescale review of the childhood criminal records system, to achieve a fair and distinct system which allows young people to leave their past mistakes behind them.

Welcome developments in youth justice are being undermined by the current childhood criminal records system, strengthening the timely call for a widespread review. Criminal records are so clearly intertwined with a range of further issues in the wider criminal justice system and are actively impeding the efforts of government and civil society to tackle pressing issues like racial disparity and addressing the impact of violence and exploitation.

The Youth Justice Board (YJB) recently published their Business Plan for 2020-2021, setting out their areas of focus, with priorities including a child first approach, custody and resettlement, ‘serious youth violence’, and overrepresented children. The YJB also intend to define their position on the reformation of childhood criminal records and thereby ‘improving life chances and positive outcomes for children.’ But the SCYJ warns that until the criminal record system is reformed, the YJB’s goals will be hard to achieve.

The SCYJ considers how the current criminal record system acts as a barrier to the priorities and goals wished to be achieved by the YJB in this briefing.

There is particular concern about the added burden that criminal records bring to the livelihoods of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) young people who are already discriminated against on the basis of race, and how these multiple discriminations create barriers that impact access to education, employment, housing, and healthcare.

The SCYJ also echoes recent concerns raised around the criminalisation of children who are victims of exploitation. The YJB acknowledges that Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) is ‘inextricably linked’ to violent crime, and that CCE takes many forms, but is not fully understood. As a result, many children receive criminal records for behaviour that is a direct result of exploitation, or a response to the trauma that violence brings with it. The SCYJ argues that not only is society failing to protect these children from the harms of exploitation, they are then punished further by a justice system that fails to recognise them as victims, and by the long-term consequences of criminal records.

With one of the most punitive criminal records systems compared to similar international jurisdictions, England and Wales allows widespread, lengthy disclosure of childhood records, anchoring young people to their past. The SCYJ is concerned that in its current form, the criminal records system entrenches a child’s criminal identity and impedes progress at pivotal opportunities for a child or young person to move away from crime, particularly when trying to advance in education, obtain housing, or employment.

The full SCYJ briefing paper, Childhood criminal records: Undermining positive developments across youth justice, is available here.

Pippa Goodfellow, Director of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, said:

“The Youth Justice Board have set out welcome ambitions for a youth justice system that sees children as children first, as well as commitments to address racial disparity, the impact of violence and exploitation. But criminal records in their current form actively impede all attempts to encourage young people to move on from past mistakes and reach their full potential.

“Criminal records continue to entrench racial disparity and disadvantage, which the government has committed to address – a comprehensive review of the system has transformative potential as a vital tool in addressing these issues, in line with the Lammy Review principle of ‘explain or reform’.

“The criminal records system also fails to recognise child development, or the complex factors that lead to a child becoming entangled with the law, often as a result of being victims of crime or being exploited themselves.

“We warmly welcome the recent announcement that the government will amend the criminal record system to remove disclosure of youth cautions, as well as stop the automatic disclosure of all convictions where a person has more than one conviction. However, we are clear that these tweaks of the system will not go far enough. A widespread review of the childhood criminal records system is long overdue, and necessary to allow the ambitions of the youth justice sector to be realised.

Christopher Stacey, Co-director of Unlock, said:

The current criminal records disclosure regime works against the rehabilitation of children. The stigma and exclusion caused by a criminal record can make it harder to move away from serious youth violence. Those who acquire a criminal record as a child or young adult can find themselves affected in multiple ways and for a very long time, often for the rest of their lives. 

“From employment, volunteering and training or studying, to travelling abroad and buying home insurance, a criminal record represents a significant barrier to the ability to move on. It drags people down, even decades later. As part of the #FairChecks movement, we’re calling for a major review of the legislation on the disclosure of criminal records. This must include specific consideration of the treatment of records obtained for offences committed in childhood, including the possibility of sealing some records.

Craig Pinkney, Executive Director of Solve: The Centre for Youth Violence and Conflict, said:

“How many reports do we need to read to recognise that something is fundamentally wrong here? If we want to live in a society that wants to see change, then we need a complete paradigm shift in the way criminal justice views children and young people who have offended. That requires ACTION, less rhetoric, hiding behind stats and figures and working with agents of change to really make a difference.

Shadae Cazeau, Head of Policy at EQUAL, said:

“Research shows that BAME people are more likely to be given a longer custodial sentence than their white counterparts, directly impacting on their criminal records disclosure, as detention of more than four years for young offenders remains unspent and therefore disclosable. This is detrimental to reducing disproportionality in the youth justice system and undermines the work of criminal justice organisations who are working really hard to reduce this type of racial overrepresentation. BAME offenders face the ‘double discrimination’ of being sentenced more harshly and having to disclose their unspent childhood convictions, making them more likely to reoffend and remain overrepresented in the reoffending statistics.

“The criminal records system is just a small facet of a much wider system but by overhauling the current system it would at least give BAME individuals one less barrier to contend with especially with various other barriers across education, housing and employment.

“Ideally, we would really like to see the government act on the recommendation to seal convictions and agree with Unlock that criminal records tribunals should be used where possible.

Gavin McKenna, Founder of Reach Every Generation, said:

“All of this child centred, strength based, solution focused work is undone when a child who is building their life hits the brick wall of the Criminal Records System, it counteracts the narrative that a child can focus on their strengths and rebuild their life, and renew their identity.

We have seen many young people, even myself, be built up for a better future, trusting and hoping for more, and then told they can’t have the job, or quizzed on their past and made to feel they are not worthy. Consequently, causing many to disengage and withdraw from any service, due to lack of trust and fear, often resulting in the vicious cycle of reoffending.


  1. The full SCYJ briefing paper, Childhood criminal records: Undermining positive developments across youth justice, is available here.
  2. Previous SCYJ reports concerning childhood criminal records: Growing up, Moving on: A report on the childhood criminal records system in England and Wales & Growing up, Moving on: The International Treatment of Childhood Criminal Records
  3. The full Youth Justice Board Business Plan for 2020-2021, outlining their areas of focus, can be found here.
  4. Recent government plans on criminal record reform can be found here.
  5. The full Unlock report on BAME disproportionality and criminal records can be found here.
  6. Concerns have recently been raised about children who receive criminal records for behaviour that is a direct result of exploitation, as highlighted by the BBC here.
  7. More information on the #FairChecks movement can be found here.