“I think if I didn’t take this job, I’d probably be in prison, or dead. One of the two.”
These are the words of an anonymous interviewee in the short documentary, Off The Record. The documentary shares the stories of individuals who have struggled when seeking employment due to their criminal record. In Victoria, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of criminal record checks in recent years, from about 3,500 a year in 1993 to more than 186,000 in 2011.
The potentially devastating result is that many applicants are discriminated against when applying for work. Such discrimination is widespread – in fact, 23 per cent of complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission between July 2010 and June 2011 were related to criminal record discrimination, and this has been as high as 40 per cent in the past few years.
The film emphasises the importance of employment for the health and wellbeing of individuals, especially those who have a criminal background. Meghan Fitzgerald of the Fitzroy Legal Service stated that “people are trying to reintegrate and rehabilitate and remake their lives, but as a result of having this criminal record, they’re struggling.” She points out that people begin to fall into patterns of underachieving and become dejected when they are forced to talk about offences from their past. “Any finding of guilt will show up for ten years on a person’s record,” she said. “That’s an extremely long time.”
Annie Nash, who has worked in the community sector for 30 years, describes how a minor incident at a demonstration was recorded on her criminal record. That record resurfaced 23 years after the event, when she applied for the position of manager at Flat Out.
Dr Bronwyn Naylor, Associate Professor at Monash University, emphasises how crucial “relevance” is when conducting criminal checks for employment purposes. She upholds the Working with Children Check as “quite a nuanced mechanism, because it does focus on relevance.” However, prospective employees are often discriminated against because of minor offences, or because offences that appear serious have not been fully explained on their record. Furthermore, their offence may be wholly irrelevant to the position they are applying for.
Employment Manager Ruth Oakden spoke about the success of The Toll Group’s Second Step Program. The program provides employment for people with a criminal or drug-addicted background who have been unable to find work because of their criminal records. Oakden says that only 5 per cent of employees in the program have resorted to their old habits.
“What we’re proving is that a job allows people to stay clean and be productive members of society,” she says. Not only does employment reduce the risk of reoffending, it can have broader implications for families that would otherwise become embroiled in a destructive cycle.
One employee beautifully and simply sums up the value of being able to work: “What it means to me, having a job? Well, it means the world to me.”