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The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 aims to give those with convictions or cautions the chance – in certain circumstances – to wipe the slate clean and start afresh.

This research briefing applies to England and Wales. It describes which convictions are eligible to become ‘spent’ and when eligible convictions and cautions will become spent. It discusses changes made to the 1974 Act to allow more convictions to become spent and to reduce the time convictions will remain unspent.

Spent convictions and cautions

Under the Act, eligible convictions or cautions become ‘spent’ after a specified period of time known as the ‘rehabilitation period’. The length of the rehabilitation period depends on the sentence or disposal imposed (for example a prison sentence, fine or caution) and the person’s age at the time. Rehabilitation periods are shorter for those who were children (under 18) when they were convicted or cautioned.

Some custodial sentences, such as life sentences and sentences of over four years imposed for sexual or violent offences, can never become spent.

Once a conviction or caution becomes spent, the person is regarded as rehabilitated and (for most purposes) is treated as if they had never committed the offence. However, there are some exceptions: for example, for some types of employment, including regulated activity with children or vulnerable adults, a person can be required to disclose details of both unspent and spent convictions or cautions.

Changes made to the rehabilitation periods

Changes have been made to the 1974 Act, reducing rehabilitation periods and allowing for convictions where longer prison sentences have been imposed to become spent. Most recently the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 amended the law to:

  • reduce the rehabilitation periods for community sentences and for custodial (prison) sentences of 4 years and under
  • allow for some convictions, resulting in a custodial sentence of more than 4 years (excluding those for serious violent, sexual, or terrorist offences) to become spent

These changes came into effect from 28 October 2023. Before this no custodial sentence of more than four years could become spent.

These changes followed measures in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 which had allowed for custodial sentences of up to four years to become spent (previously custodial sentences over 30 months could never become spent), and changed the length of some rehabilitation periods (in most cases by reducing them).

There are continued calls for further reform to the criminal records system.

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