For most students, employment opportunities, volunteering, and experiential learning are a necessary stage in one’s academic and professional career. For some students — particularly in nursing, or education, or even medicine — your credentials may not be enough to get a placement: various types of criminal record checks may be required. These ‘checks’ may also be a standard part of screening for an eventual job.
But what you may not know is that record checks can reveal a lot of information: information that is very old, irrelevant to the position being applied for, or even information that a person may not even be aware is there. Even though the person may be legally innocent — in that they have not been convicted of a crime — such information on a record can create barriers to placements and employment and therefore have a negative impact on someone’s future as young professionals.
Employers are using record checks more and more as a risk screening tool and as a result, these ‘checks’ may create a stigma rather than depicting the reality of the situation and therefore must be used with caution as a risk management tool. According to the John Howard Society, having a record can reduce someone’s chances of getting a job by up to 50 per cent, and that number is likely worse for racialized populations. Some employers have policies on what to do when they see a positive result on a criminal check; others might just put the application in the garbage.
Many of those who have never been convicted of a crime are unaware that the current operating system of police record checks in Ontario can still pose barriers to employment through revealing sensitive information to employers. This can occur through disclosing criminal charges that were withdrawn or stayed, charges in which the individual was acquitted, and non-criminal police contact when there was no conviction or finding of guilt. There are currently no province-wide standards on what type of information can or cannot be disclosed on various levels of record checks.
Over 100,000 cases on average are processed through Ontario courts every year. Of those, more than 40 per cent are withdrawn, stayed, or acquitted. According to the article “Race, Crime, and Criminal Justice in Canada”, by Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Scot Wortley, Indigenous people are overrepresented at nearly every stage of the criminal justice system. Moreover, Black people are overrepresented in cannabis possession arrests in Ontario. This police contact can be revealed in future background checks. However, allegations are not convictions. There is no legal basis for this information to appear in police background checks. It is important to notice that there is a racial dimension to the issue of non-conviction records and who they affect.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association created a report in 2012 with interviews of many who have lost educational or employment opportunities as a result of the disclosure of non-conviction records. Many of these people didn’t even know they had something on their record.
However, Ontario passed the Police Records Check Reform Act, 2015 on December 1 that year. Also known as Bill 113, the act standardizes disclosure practices across police services and promotes fairness and respect for the privacy of individuals when they request for a police record check. It will be implemented in law as of November 1, 2018.
There is currently very little protection in the Ontario Human Rights Code for people with criminal records, and no protection for people with non-conviction records, which means that employers are legally allowed to discriminate. It can also be the sole reason as to why you are denied a volunteer or employment opportunity. Even when the law comes into force later this year, employers should still know how to interpret a criminal or non-criminal record and should be encouraged to take a nuanced approach in assessing the relevance of a particular record to the specific position being applied for.
We as students must mobilize together and raise greater awareness about the barriers that the current system imposes on our professional future with regard to human rights protection. Raising awareness through engaging in activities such as signing petitions and participating in public demonstrations can be impactful. The Ontario Human Rights Commission must redefine how employer practices must be adhered to in the context of police record checks.
Sonia Gill and Proshat Babaeian both completed the 2017–2018 masters program in Criminology at the Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies. They work with the John Howard Society of Ontario.