It has become evermore common that employers check whether an applicant for a job has a criminal record.

The number of enquires made to the Criminal Records Registry in 2010 was 34 times higher than it had been in the middle of the 1990s.

This is the conclusion of a thesis from the University of Gothenburg, which analyses also the causes of this increase.

“One reason is that several new laws make checking the Registry compulsory for certain employers, such as schools.

But another reason is that employers who are not covered by these laws have started to request that an applicant present an extract from the Registry,” says Christel Backman.

Her thesis presents studies of how employers use criminal background checks when taking on new personnel.

A criminal background check has been compulsory when employing personnel within childcare and the school system since 2001, in order to exclude people who have been convicted of sexual crime or certain violent crimes.

Christel Backman’s thesis presents a historical analysis of the growth of the Register and the changes in legislation that have taken place.

The thesis includes also a study of interviews with employers who request extracts from the Register even though this is not required by law, and an analysis of the discussion in the media, from 1997 until today, concerning such criminal background checks.

The study shows that employers who require that applicants present an extract from the Register despite this not being founded in law do so because the employees deal with theft-attractive goods, that it will give a competitive advantage, or that they have customers who require it.

“It is easy to understand individual employers who believe that they must do everything possible to prevent the employees committing crime”, says Christel Backman. “But we should be more critical to this development from a societal perspective.”

Debate in the media during the past ten years has swung from criticism of the use of criminal background checks to criticism of the fact that they are not used more frequently. The focus previously was on rehabilitation of a convicted person. Today, it has become preventing crime by excluding convicted persons. Christel Backman believes that there is a risk that increased use of criminal background checks will lead to convicted people being excluded during recruitment, and thus finding it more difficult to become reintegrated in society. This is occurring at the same time that research shows that having somewhere to live and having a job are the most important factors in preventing a convicted person reoffending.

Christel Backman interprets the fact that employers who are not covered by the legal requirement to request an extract from the Criminal Records Registry do so as a sign that measures that previously would have been considered a violation of privacy are now being more readily accepted.

“I call this ‘function creep’,” says Christel Backman, and continues: “It’s a common effect in various forms of surveillance. We can see the same thing happening in CCTV monitoring and in the use of DNA registers. We become accustomed to measures that violate our privacy, and start to ask why they are not more widely used. Finally, we demand that such measures be introduced, and ignore the negative consequences that this has.”

Background: Just over 184,000 compulsory criminal background checks of job applicants were carried out in 2010. More than 160,000 people requested an extract from the Registry in the same year. Most of these were people who had applied for a job with an employer who required such an extract.

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