Very few organisations prefer employees to have a criminal record – but charity Unlock can insist on it.
For 15 years Unlock has helped people convicted of a crime deal with everyday issues, such as getting a job and finding companies that will insure their homes and cars.
Set up by a group of former prisoners, half of its trustees have criminal records as do all the staff who come into contact with clients, either face-to-face or on the phone, and all the volunteers given placements there to ease them back into work.
Co-director Christopher Stacey is no exception.
When the 29-year-old was a law student at the University of Hull he stole a significant amount of money from his part-time employer.
"We had people ringing us in tears because they’d been crime free for years but had always had to declare their criminal record" - Christopher Stacey
Mr Stacey said: “I narrowly avoided prison and was given a 12-month suspended sentence. I obviously lost my job and I nearly didn’t finish my degree.
"My mum and dad’s house insurance was immediately void from the moment I was convicted but no one told them that.
"It’s important our staff can speak from personal experience and the people phoning up feel confident they’re not being judged.
"You end up having to go through a mini retrial when talking to somebody about your criminal conviction because they start from scratch and ask obvious questions.
"It’s really difficult for most people, you feel like you’ve been through an emotional washing machine."
Unlock, based at Maidstone Community Support Centre in Marsham Street, also advises employers on giving jobs to former criminals and trains probation officers and other professionals who help ex-offenders rebuild their lives.
They don’t take government funding, which allows them to stay independent and be critical of laws and policies when needed.
About 5,000 people a year call Unlock’s helpline and a further 50,000 log onto its website, where they can type in conviction details and discover what information they must disclose to potential employers.
Other Unlock websites provide forums to share experiences, and blogs written by former clients who have turned their lives around.
One example is Adrian, not his real name, who went to prison in 2006 for possessing drugs with intent to supply and used his time inside “to reflect on my past and consider my future”.
Following his release, Adrian finished his computer science degree and after a few job rejections is now on his way to becoming a fully qualified chartered management accountant.
The other side to Unlock is a campaigning body, which is currently focussing on the “ban the box” project, asking employers to remove the tick box on job application forms that asks if an applicant has a criminal past and request this information further on in the recruitment process instead.
The charity was involved in a successful campaign to change the law so that anyone sentenced to less than four years in prison will eventually have their sentence “spent” and will no longer have to declare it.
Previously it was two-and-a-half-years.
Christopher Stacey said: “We had people ringing us in tears because they’d been crime free for years but had always had to declare their criminal record.
"One man in his fifties who’d had a criminal record for 35 years told us: ‘I feel like a normal person again.’”
Unlock has no problem with police keeping long-term crime records but Mr Stacey said the amount of time a person has to declare certain convictions to potential employers for – sometimes their entire lives – is ridiculous.
Call the helpline on 01634 247350 or the office on 01622 230705.