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‘Anchoring, everlasting, uncertainty, resilience’: Researching the impact of criminal records acquired in youth

Nicola Collett, a PhD student at Keele University, is currently researching the potential influence of a criminal record acquired between the ages of 10-25, later on in adulthood. Here she blogs about some of her findings so far.

Almost three years into my PhD I am spending much of my time surrounded by scribbles, highlights and post-it-it-notes as I continue to draw together the key ‘themes’ and ideas which came out from the interviews I conducted. In a recent research update I shared that I had been to Ghent to present preliminary findings and ideas which this blog will discuss in more detail. The four themes I highlighted in this presentation are: ‘anchoring’, ‘everlasting’, ‘uncertainty’ and ‘resilience’. Whilst the thesis is still a work in progress I hope this blog will help give some indication of the experiences captured in this research. Thank you again to those who took part and placed their trust in me.



“…it was a really traumatic erm period of time in my life so when I have to disclose it or talk about it not only I’ve got the actions of the things I’ve done wrong…I’ve got the erm context of it all as well…which for me feels worse it’s like…I don’t know a little bit re-tr- re-traumatising”



“…this caution had an effect on me for…years. Literally for years. You know…it caused me a lot of grief in the sense that I had to re-live that situation over and over again”


Throughout our lives we take part in interviews and assessments, fill in various different forms and go through an array of sorting processes designed to filtering people as they try to access different opportunities. This occurs in variety of life domains from employment and volunteering to insurance and travel. This has become a common often taken for granted feature of our lives. However, for several of my participants these processes can be emotionally harmful as they require not only the disclosure of a criminal record but further explanation of the context of their offending. This is the anchoring affect whereby individuals are emotionally drawn back to a time in their lives where they may have faced victimisation, trauma, addictions and other significant difficulties. It was explained to me that this experience of disclosure could be humiliating, embarrassing and felt to be deeply invasive.


“…it’s had an impact on my life when I thought it was done you know? I thought I’d I’d reinvented myself I’d left that life behind. I’ve I’ve done everythin’ since I’ve done volunteerin’ I’ve worked […] I came from nothin’ […] all I’ve done is jump through hurdles…for like ten years […] I’ve had a clean slate throughout uni nothin’s gone wrong but still…this is apparently the pinnacle of my life that should dictate where I can go”


The long-term enduring nature of a criminal record has been discussed by Unlock  and other criminal record scholars and campaigners. Indeed, the everlasting effect of having interacted with the criminal justice system at a young age was something the majority of my participants discussed. Those in early adulthood shared how they felt nervous and lived with a degree of anxiety at the potential for their criminal record to resurface later in life. In contrast, those later in adulthood reflected back on how they had personally experienced the criminal record as everlasting, resurfacing after many years of it not being disclosed. There was a real sense of not being able to fully move on despite having developed maturity and grown older with more life experience.


“I think it’s always that thought I think it’s always there I think it’s always that… that thing in the back of ya mind… that it will stop ya from from future opportunities from travelling erm from future job prospects”


Linking very closely to the everlasting potential of having a historical youth record disclosed later in life is the third theme uncertainty. Due to the knowledge that their criminal record may resurface almost all my participants, even those who felt they had been successful thus far, acknowledged a degree of uncertainty over their future plans. Indeed, whilst individuals felt they had a degree of control over their lives and have found ways to access opportunities, there was an awareness of their vulnerability to external changes in law and policy. For some this uncertainty was only a slight concern whilst for others it was a significant issue causing them to worry about future romantic relationships, travel post-Brexit and the ability to attain and advance in employment. At the time of writing we are all living through increased uncertainty due to the global pandemic, and I am wondering how this might be affecting those with criminal records who may need to seek new employment. Life is truly unpredictable and the added layer of precariousness given by having a criminal record further complicates things.


“…the thing that I um you know I rate myself for is that fact that I I stood strong…and I persevered do you know what I mean?…I never I never like let it get me down”


Whilst much of this blog post has captured the negatives and difficulties associated with living with a criminal record, my interviews with participants covered a range of different emotions. Through the tears and the anger was laughter and strength. As such, I am keen to ensure I acknowledge the positivity and ‘can do’ attitude some of my participants had. Whilst largely experiences were negative, many of those I spoke to discussed their motivation and drive to succeed despite the potential obstacles living with a criminal record creates. This resilience was shown by many and it was something people spoke proudly of.

NOTE: names have been changed

Read Nicola’s previous updates about her research

May 2020 update on research understanding the influence of an early life criminal record on adult life courses

Nicola Collett, a PhD student at Keele University, is currently researching the potential influence of a criminal record acquired between the ages of 10-25, later on in adulthood. Following on from her last update in September 2019, Nicola writes here about how her research is progressing.

I am delighted to be sharing another update on my PhD research exploring the potential influence of an early life criminal record later on in adulthood.

Since my last update in 2019 I have been incredibly busy thinking about the information shared with me in the interviews and drawing together the key ideas and arguments I wish to make in my thesis. I have been busy writing draft chapters and getting essential feedback from supervisors – a very long and reflective process. I would like to again thank those who took part for sharing so many personal experiences and thoughts with me. I look forward to sharing some more detailed thesis ideas with you at a later date.

Nicola presenting at the conference in Ghent

In September 2019 I presented some preliminary findings and reflections at the European Society of Criminology conference in Ghent. I highlighted four themes emerging from my work that highlight the complexities of living with a criminal record from youth – anchoring, everlasting, uncertainty and resilience. You can read more about these by downloading these slides.  

At the event I also drew on the interviews I had conducted, emphasising the diverse range of experiences shared with me. I shared some powerful quotes* taken from my transcripts  and explained to the audience that each person I spoke to shared something unique and personal to them. No two individuals experienced the same challenges in the same way. People were surprised to hear that in England and Wales a historical youth record can be disclosed later in adulthood in such a wide range of instances. They were keen to ask further questions about the experiences of those I had spoken to and it was a real privilege to be able to share this with them.

A third important update to share is that I successfully encouraged Keele University to sign up to the Fair Chance for Students with Convictions pledge designed to improve access and participation to UK universities. Given the research I am conducting I felt it was important to ensure my institution was engaging with this and challenging their admissions policy. Keele is now one of 16 universities which have signed up to this pledge.

What’s next?

Despite the disruption caused by the coronavirus I have been fortunate enough to continue working from home, albeit at a slower pace. I am pressing on with my writing whilst continually reflecting upon the work I have produced so far having video calls with supervisors where possible. As circumstances continue to change it is unclear when this project will be finished but I will continue to provide updates along the way. 

I hope everyone is keeping safe and well in these challenging times.

Written by Nicola Collett

* Direct quotes have only been used where permission has been granted via a signed consent form. Where participants did not want direct quotes used, paraphrasing has been used instead.



Update on research – The right to a fair future: understanding the influence of an early life criminal record on adult life courses

Nicola Collett, a PhD student at Keele University, is currently researching the potential influence of a criminal record acquired between the ages of 10-25, later on in adulthood. Following a request for participants in February of this year, Nicola writes here about how her research is progressing.

I would first like to thank everyone who has contacted me wanting to take part in my research. I have received such a positive response to my call for participants and it has been a great source of encouragement highlighting just how important this topic is. Following my call for participants in February, I am excited to share with you an update on my PhD research exploring the potential influence of an early life criminal record later on in adulthood.

What have I done?

I have been travelling around the Midlands and North West conducting interviews with adult men and women living in the UK with a criminal record attained when aged twenty-five or under. Overall, I have met with fourteen people twice, in order to hear about their experiences with the criminal justice system, and how they feel their criminal record has influenced them later on in life. Of these fourteen, eight identified as female and six as male. Four had served custodial sentences and most had at least two non-custodial convictions. There was an age range from twenty-five to sixty-six.

Whilst often the conversations have been of a difficult nature, the interviews have been incredibly informative with people being able to reflect on both the positive and negative influences their experiences have had. People have discussed the barriers they have faced with regards to travel and visa applications, and access to employment and volunteering opportunities. More personally, people have shared the difficulties they have had establishing a new life and identity whilst having a criminal record ‘pulling them back to the past’. Disclosure can be incredibly disruptive and people have discussed anxiety and stress over people ‘finding out’ and how this might change people’s opinions of them. Some of the more positive reflections people have made include being able to understand and empathise with those in difficult circumstances and having the ability to help them either via a professional role or through being a positive role model

I would like to thank everyone who has taken part and shared their personal experiences with me.

What’s next?

In September I am travelling to Ghent to present some preliminary findings and reflections at the European Society of Criminology conference. At this event I will be putting forward the experiences of those who I have spoken to highlighting the current state of things in the UK. By doing so, I will be making people aware of the difficulties faced and putting forwards the voices of those who have taken part.  This will help to inform the research of a new European research working group looking to challenge some of the so-called ‘collateral consequences’ arising from criminal records.

I am currently working through all the interview material I have collected to identify the main themes and arguments I wish to make in my thesis. Writing has already begun and I aim to be near-completion by September 2020. After this, I will be developing a summary report to be shared with Unlock highlighting the key findings of the research.

I look forward to providing another update in the New Year.


Written by Nicola Collett

Request for participants (now closed) – Understanding the influence of an early life criminal record on adult life courses

UpdateThe request for participants is now closed. See the message below from Nicola, the researcher:

“Thank you to everyone who has been in contact with me with their generous offer to take part in my PhD research. I have been overwhelmed with responses and now have enough participants that fit the criteria, so the call for participants is now closed. This closure is based entirely on my capacity as a postgraduate researcher working alone on this project. I would like to thank everyone who has responded so positively and I will be working with Unlock to provide updates on the research as it progresses.”


Original request for participants

Unlock is pleased to be supporting the following research.

Nicola Collett,  a PhD student at Keele University, is currently researching the potential influence of a criminal record acquired between the ages of 10-25, later on in adulthood.

She would like to talk to people aged 25 and over, to see what they have to say about their experiences of living with a criminal record relating to one or more non-custodial sentence(s) or out-of-court disposals attained between the ages of 10-25. This may include, but is not limited to, cautions, conditional cautions, fines, behaviour orders and suspended sentences. Experiences may be positive or negative. For some, it may be experiences are neutral. There is no upper age limit for this research.

Do you fit the following criteria?

  • Aged 25 or over
  • Received one or more non-custodial sentence(s) or out-of-court disposals, aged 25 or younger
  • Currently living in the Midlands or North West England

If you choose to take part, you will be interviewed by Nicola twice, for approximately 60 minutes each time. For your convenience, interviews will be conducted in your local area.

Participants will be offered a £10 voucher at the end of the second interview to thank you for your time, and for sharing your experiences with Nicola.



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