I have reflected overnight on the ridiculous situation that Bob Ashford has faced in seeking to become a police and crime commissioner. Bob Ashford is an exceptionally qualified person to take on this role, given the numerous duties he has undertaken within the criminal justice and in particular the youth justice system. His honesty and integrity is well displayed by the way he has continued to acknowledge his minor misdemeanour as a juvenile in spite of the fact that there appears to be no official record of this offence. But his dilemma highlights the fundamental flaws in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act which is long overdue for reform. Failure to grasp the political nettle around this procedure in part reflects continued ambivalence concerning a real commitment to the reformation of offenders per se. This act has been in force since 1974 but despite repeated lobbying by penal reform groups there have been so few changes to it since that date and none which support a system where an offender’s attempts at rehabilitation are rewarded and recognised. The system is so cautiously expressed that as we can now see with Bob Ashford it fails to achieve its basic rationale to rehabilitate offenders.
Why the criteria for becoming a police and crime commissioner are higher than that imposed by government to become prime minister is beyond reason! Certainly we would want to ensure that those charged with the oversight of policing and crime prevention policies in any locality is an upstanding member of the community and this would surely not be in dispute. What is in dispute though is how do you define such a good citizen? Is it reasonable to disbar a citizen who, once as a juvenile, committed a minor misdemeanour and who, in his subsequent entire adult life of 46 years has demonstrated such an exceptional commitment to good citizenship and public service that the whole process is diminished by his absence from the ballot box. Enabling (ex) offenders to reform is in fact the essence of rehabilitative strategies which the current government are reportedly in support of through its ‘rehabilitation revolution’.
In fact the absurdity underlining this decision merely illustrates somewhat starkly the problems facing any young person seeking to put behind their juvenile indiscretions. Our criminal justice system allegedly encourages and promotes the rehabilitation of offenders. Agencies such as probation, Youth Offending Teams, and the Voluntary and Community Sector are charged with working with young and adult offenders in order to move them away from further criminal activity. Those working in that system know that this is a difficult undertaking and there are many obstacles in the way of achieving this successfully. The continued presence of a criminal record often makes it difficult for (ex) offenders to successfully find and keep employment and, even more difficult, gain acceptance and reintegration back into their local communities.
The Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) will be charged with finding ways of reducing reoffending by the commissioning of services in order to reduce the incidence of reoffending in their areas. We need to ensure that candidates for public election have the experience and the knowledge about how difficult it is to achieve this in the criminal justice system and Bob Ashford was uniquely qualified in this respect. Are we really to disbar someone with those qualities when more obvious ‘political’ nominees for PCCs do not have the experience or the knowledge to understand how to affect positive change in such a system.
There is a danger that the positive features and potential of these new posts will not be achieved given the current disarray which surrounds the process of this election. The public will turn away from participating in the elections and we will be left with people unsuited to the role even if they have a completely clean criminal record. This is a real opportunity to enable informed and local decision-making within communities where they should feel confident that their policing and crime policies reflect their concerns and their issues. Urgent action needs taking both to look again at the restrictive and counter-productive provisions concerning juvenile convictions and use this experience to mount much bigger campaigns to look afresh at the outdated and unhelpful Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.