The complete history of New Zealand's Clean Slate Act

The Ministry of Justice's Criminal Records Unit processes about 450,000 requests a year from New Zealanders wanting to see their records, often to provide them to a potential employer.

New Zealand's Criminal Records (Clean Slate) Act 2004 was designed to allow people with less serious offenses and who have not re-offended within seven years to put the past behind them.

Rather than simply being "soft on crime" as some opponents claimed at the time the Act was passed, the seven-year qualifying period was based on statistical evidence that showed people with minor convictions who had not re-offended after seven years were no more likely to re-offend than those without convictions.

No one doubted that the Act would have a significant impact in concealing past convictions, and it did.

Information released by the Ministry of Justice showed that 115,508 people who requested a copy of their criminal history between November 2004 and June 2014 were told they "have none" because of their entitlements under the Criminal Records (Clean Slate) Act 2004.

Of those, the 10 most common offences concealed include driving intoxicated, dangerous or negligent driving, obtain benefit by deception, possessing cannabis and common assault.

At the time of the Act coming into force, Government Minister Phil Goff talked movingly about the  hundreds of letters he had received about the change.

One was from a grandmother who had offended when she was 15. While the offending was minor, she still felt branded as a criminal decades later.

Another man who committed a petty theft when he was 17 had carried the stigma of a criminal record for 55 years.

Other people who had been guilty of minor offenses such as removing a roadworks sign, still had to list those on job application forms decades later.

The passing of the Act was controversial. New Zealand First MP Dail Jones, at the second reading of the bill, claimed that the bill was "soft on law and order", and that is was part of a deal between the Labour Party and the Greens that would wipe out cannabis convictions, to the benefit of Green MP Nandor Tanczos who had drug convictions at the time.

The clean-slate bill had a very personal impact on several other MPs.

National's Northland MP, John Carter, had a drink-drive conviction from 1985 and was clean-slated when the law took effect. However because anyone who has had a custodial sentence imposed is ineligible for the clean-slate provision, Green MP and veteran protestor Sue Bradford, who had so many convictions at the time that she had lost count, was not eligible to have her record cleared.

The Clean Slate Act is not without controversy, even now.

Clinical director of Alcohol & Drug Assessment & Counselling (ADAC) Roger Brooking said his experience was that the Clean Slate Act allowed prospective employers to pry too much into the backgrounds of job seekers.

Mr Brooking, who has been working with offenders in the Wellington area for 15 years, said most employers asked applicants whether they had a criminal conviction.

"I meet so many people who end up in the justice system who have completely given up on any possibility of getting a job because of this problem," he said. "I would actually put this in the context of a human rights issue, that employers have no right to ask this question, except in certain cases."

Some experts also want more Clean Slate concealment.

Despite the controversy, the Act has been a success, with hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders having had convictions concealed under the Clean Slate Act, and going on to seek employment with clean criminal records.

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