How does racism in the criminal justice system extend into employment discrimination for women? On 29 June 2021, we published our latest research, 'Worst-Case Scenario: How racism in the criminal justice system harms women's chances of finding work'.
The research highlights the long-lasting collateral consequences of conviction for racially minoritised women. While there has been excellent research on racism in criminal justice and on employment discrimination, we looked at how these two structural barriers intersect for women.
"We have been supporting women with convictions for over 11 years. Often they tell us about the discrimination that they’ve faced – discrimination in the courts system or while they were in prison or when they’re looking for jobs. 62% of our clients come from an ethnic minority background, which is vastly disproportionate to the population of the UK. This tells us who is receiving convictions and who needs support to find a job afterwards," our research author and Policy and Research Officer Olivia Dehnavi explained.
We launched the report at a very well-attended webinar chaired by our Chief Executive Natasha Finlayson, featuring a presentation from Olivia, followed by a lively discussion with Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP, Pav Dhaliwal Chief Executive of Revolving Doors Agency, and two women with lived experience of the criminal justice system. We discussed how our findings relate to institutional racism, lack of racial diversity in the criminal justice sector, and what we can do to encourage employers to hire more women with convictions. It was an inspiring gathering with a united voice to call for transformative changes to eliminate racial discrimination across the criminal justice system and in the workplace.
If you've missed our launch event, here's a quick round-up:
All the women who come to Working Chance say their convictions follow them into the world of work. This is due to intersectionality of experience and layers of structural disadvantages faced by racially minoritised women – creating that 'worst-case scenario'.
Policy and Research Officer, Working Chance
Our clients often tell us about the discrimination they face in every step of the criminal justice system. Our research found that racially minoritised women are more likely to be arrested and receive harsher punishments than white women, leading to criminal records that last longer. A woman with lived experience who spoke in the panel shared her personal experience of how the system views Black women.
Woman with experience in the criminal justice system
Black women are viewed as aggressors, but white women are viewed as victims. I’ve been a victim of crime and I’ve committed crimes, but both times I was treated the same – as an angry Black girl.
The impact of this racism doesn't just end when the women finish their sentence. Because they now have criminal records, they find it much harder to find jobs, which is essential for getting their lives back on track and supporting their families. For several of the women we spoke to, retraining or getting higher qualifications doesn't necessarily help, as another woman shared in the panel.
Woman with experience in the criminal justice system
I wanted to be an example to my children, to my society, so I retrained. An unconditional offer I had was withdrawn because they couldn’t employ people with convictions. I have so many other examples. Because of prejudice, I was reduced to low-paid roles.
It was clear from our clients' testimonies, and our research, that this racism is structural, rather than a result of individual attitudes or actions. We talked about how our findings relate to the Sewell Report and claims that there is "no institutional racism" in the UK. Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy said:
Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP
For the government's response to the Black Lives Matter movement to be ‘there's no institutional racism’ is wrong. That would absolve the government of responsibility. The Sewell Report rolls back the small gains we’ve made. We need to get that work back on track.
The question now is: What can we do? It becomes evident that changes in policies and practice are needed not only in the criminal justice system but in the job market to ensure that racially minoritised women with convictions have a fair shot at getting a job, building their careers, and getting their lives back on track.
People with convictions have so much to offer, and we need to not just talk about entry-level positions for them, but getting them into leadership and career progression as well.
Chief Executive, Revolving Doors Agency
Working Chance's report closes with recommendations for both the government and employers to address these issues. For the government, that includes implementing overdue recommendations from The Lammy Review and the government's own Female Offender Strategy.
Employers can help by practicing anti-racist recruitment that does not discriminate against people with convictions. For starters, employers - and especially hiring managers - should understand laws around Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks to know when it is legally appropriate to ask a candidate to disclose whether they have a criminal record.
It's an important and ongoing conversation, and we hope that our report and this discussion sparks your drive to create that change in the sector or in the workplace.