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Clean Slate to help people get on with their lives

Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Justice
Opinion editorial

23 December 2003

'Clean Slate' will help people get on with their lives

Legislation due to be passed by Parliament early next year will allow thousands of New Zealanders with minor convictions to finally put past mistakes behind them.

The Criminal Records (Clean Slate) Bill will allow those convicted of offences which did not result in a sentence of imprisonment, and who have gone seven years without any further convictions, to have their convictions concealed.

Comparable legislation has been operating in countries such as the UK, Canada and in some states in Australia, for up to 30 years. Allowing New Zealanders with past minor convictions to have a 'clean slate' is long overdue.

As Minister of Justice I have received hundreds of letters on this subject. One, for example, was from a grandmother who offended when she was 15. While the offending was minor, she still feels branded as a criminal today. Another came from a man who committed a petty theft when he was 17 and has carried the stigma of a criminal record for 55 years. Others have involved minor offences such as removing a 'roadworks' sign, which continue to have to be listed on application forms decades later.

Many of those affected believe they have suffered discrimination in employment, accommodation, applying for hire purchase, arranging insurance, and so on. All of them feel the stigma of being branded a criminal in public every time they have to disclose their convictions. In these cases, the punishment is disproportionate to the crime.

Some opposition politicians have condemned the legislation as a mandate to lie. It is not. It simply allows a great many ordinary, and now law-abiding, New Zealanders who have long suffered unnecessary anxiety about past mistakes to no longer have old and minor criminal convictions revealed.

It will still be lawful to ask someone to consent to the disclosure of their criminal record by the Ministry of Justice or the Police but if the person has a clean slate, no convictions will be revealed.

The clean slate legislation is not 'soft on crime'. In fact it is fairly conservative in the conditions it sets. The qualifying threshold of no custodial sentences is high – most countries will clean-slate convictions of up to six months' jail – and sensible exclusions have been put in place.

The non-custodial threshold means that no serious or recidivist offender will be eligible. That threshold is a clear line of eligibility that is easily understood. The seven-year qualifying period is based on statistical evidence that shows that people with minor convictions who have not re-offended after seven years are no more likely to re-offend than those without convictions.

Anyone convicted of specified offences, such as sexual offences, is not entitled to a clean slate.

The legislation only conceals criminal records; it does not wipe them. Any further conviction, regardless of the sentence imposed, ends entitlement to clean-slating of any past offence.

Full criminal records can also be made available in special circumstances such as during police investigations or court proceedings, and in relation to sensitive types of employment, such as the care of children or jobs involving national security.

Finally, because New Zealand legislation cannot bind a foreign government, the clean slate scheme cannot legally excuse New Zealanders from disclosing criminal convictions to overseas authorities when travelling, or when applying for visas or immigration permits.

The new legislation will finally provide the means for an estimated several hundred thousand New Zealanders to put their past behind them. Those who have lived blameless lives for many years will not continue to be punished by the stigma of a past mistake being made public over and over again.

I have no doubt that most New Zealanders will regard this legislation as properly giving people a fair go and as the right thing to do.

ENDS

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