Plans to introduce spent convictions legislation in Victoria – the only state that doesn’t allow the wiping of minor convictions from a person’s record – stalled earlier this year. Now, Reason Party leader Fiona Patten has put the scheme back on the agenda. By Denham Sadler.
“You can’t just put people in jail and leave that on their record,” says Sara*. “There are people living with these mistakes and these things that they’ve done in their lives just to survive. A lot of the time people want to change their lives, but it’s hard when you’ve got things like that holding you back and still lingering around when you’re trying to move forward.”
Sara was convicted of a drug-related offence in 2017. She served a 40-day sentence in a Victorian jail, and was bailed into a rehabilitation centre. After that, things started to change. She’s been clean now for nearly two years. She completed a certificate IV in alcohol and other drugs and a certificate IV in mental health, as well as a diploma in community services (case management). A magistrate even labelled Sara a “poster girl for rehabilitation”.
Despite this progress, Sara has found her conviction has restricted her ability to move on with her life. Particularly when she was finishing her studies and, now, as she looks for work.
“The fact that I’ve got time served on my record now, trying to do placement [was] difficult,” she says of her certificate IV. “Having a criminal record, there are a lot of stereotypes that people think; that because you’ve been in prison, you’re just a criminal, that you’re no good.”
Sara says she also wants to travel with her children, but with a criminal record that seems an impossibility.
“I’d love to one day go to Disneyland with my kids – but I can’t see that happening,” she says. “That would be beautiful. I’ve always wanted to see America. It would be nice to tick those things off my bucket list one day, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen.”
Victoria is the only state or territory in Australia that does not have a spent convictions scheme, which allows for minor convictions to be wiped from someone’s record after a period of time with no offending. There have been schemes in Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales – each slightly different – for about three decades, as well as one at a federal level.
“I’M CLEAN AND I WANT TO GET A JOB. I WANT TO BE A PRODUCTIVE MEMBER OF SOCIETY AND I’VE CHANGED MY LIFE COMPLETELY, BUT HAVING THIS OBSTACLE OF A CRIMINAL RECORD IS REALLY HARD.”
After campaigning for the issue last year, Reason Party leader Fiona Patten introduced a bill in February to implement a spent convictions scheme, but the Victorian government stalled and the bill was not debated. Patten says Victoria was waiting for the Commonwealth to introduce a spent convictions scheme while other states were doing so in the 1990s. The issue fell off the agenda once this actually happened.
“We never saw the government get around to implementing it,” she says. “I was frustrated by the fact nobody had moved on this.”
Organisations such as the Law Institute of Victoria have campaigned for a spent convictions scheme for decades.
Now, after its re-election, the Andrews government has relented and launched an inquiry into the issue. Patten is chairing the inquiry, proposing ways in which a spent convictions scheme should operate. Many believe its introduction is a foregone conclusion.
“There’s wide bipartisan support for spent convictions,” Patten tells The Saturday Paper. “Now it’s just about landing on the parameters of it.”
Patten says the state government’s insistence on the inquiry is vexing. “As an independent, who has put up quite a few private member bills over my time in parliament, it was frustrating but maybe not surprising at all,” she says. “I would hope we would see legislation implemented before the end of the year.”
Under Patten’s original bill, the scheme would mean a conviction of less than six months’ imprisonment would be automatically spent after a five-year waiting period for a summary offence and 10 years for an indictable offence.
“The government, as is its way, always prefers to pass their own legislation, so they requested an inquiry into spent convictions so we would canvass what the model might look like and hear from the affected organisations and from the Liberals,” says Patten.
Proponents of a spent convictions scheme say it’s well overdue – it would bring Victoria into line with the rest of the country and give those who have turned their lives around a second chance.
“Spent convictions allow you to get on with your life after you’ve done something stupid, generally in your youth, that’s on your record,” says Patten. “If you haven’t committed another crime after 10 years, I think it’s fair that your future isn’t burdened by that mistake you made a decade ago.”
Liz didn’t actually serve any jail time, but the series of drug-related convictions she received in Victoria will remain on her record indefinitely if a spent convictions scheme isn’t introduced.
She avoided a prison sentence after having what she describes as a spiritual awakening and deciding to get clean. She spent a year in a rehabilitation facility. In the time since getting out, though, she has struggled to find employment due to her criminal record.
“When applying for jobs in the future I know that it will say on my record that I’m a convicted criminal,” Liz says. “I’m in my prime now, and I’m clean and I want to get a job in the future. I want to be a productive member of society and I’ve changed my life completely, but having this obstacle of a criminal record is really hard.”
In a submission to the spent convictions inquiry, Liberal MP James Newbury wrote about one of his constituents who had been sexually abused by a layman of the Catholic Church decades ago. In his early 20s, the man tried to blackmail his abuser and was charged over this in the mid-1990s.
The man has had an “unblemished” record since then, according to Newbury, and runs a small business and has an adult child. The man’s mother explained to Newbury that “the conviction stands as a constant reminder of the psychological, emotional and mental trauma he endured as a little boy and I, as his mother, could be given peace of mind, freed from some guilt of not being able to protect my son”.
Goulburn Valley Community Legal Centre also wrote to the inquiry, explaining how the lack of a spent convictions scheme unfairly affects many Indigenous members of its community.
“The lack of a spent conviction scheme currently exposes those who have transgressed the law at times often long in the past to ongoing adverse impacts, especially in the area of employment,” its submission read.
“The majority of employers now routinely include questions in employment interviews seeking to elicit information regarding the personal suitability of applicants to the role …
“This has disastrous impacts on the self-esteem of people who have committed offences young in life and have since become model citizens, a very common circumstance amongst our Aboriginal clients.”
The legal centre outlined how one-off convictions have affected many of its clients, including a young Aboriginal mother who is struggling to find work after being convicted for shoplifting meat to feed her child, and a 55-year-old man who was denied a Working with Children check due to a conviction more than 30 years ago.
The Victorian inquiry, due to present its report on August 27, has been tasked with considering the experiences of “groups in our community who suffer particular disadvantage due to past convictions, such as young people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.
It will aim to find a balance between rehabilitation for offenders and community safety and the wellbeing of victims.
Key measures in the recent Victorian budget suggest the Andrews government doesn’t plan to back away from the “tough on crime” stance it adopted during the state election. However, Patten says a spent convictions scheme is a practical way to reduce reoffending and support vulnerable members of society.
“This is about being able to take a different approach to law and order. If people can’t be employed, they are more likely to commit a crime,” she says.
“This is another crime-reduction model, and I hope that over this term we’ll look at other ways of reducing crime, not just building more prisons.”
* Name has been changed for privacy.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 29, 2019 as “Time spent”. Subscribe here.