As the pandemic and erratic lockdown conditions have seen the economy largely shut down, we’ve entered a jobs crisis and watched unemployment rise. Government policy has deepened inequality and meant that women have had to juggle job insecurity with increased amounts of childcare and housework.
As the financial crisis continues, we need to think about how poverty can drive women to commit offences.
Women worse off
Women are suffering disproportionately from the financial consequences of the pandemic. They are more likely to lose their job or be put on furlough than men. Plus some of the sectors with highest employment rates for women have been impacted the most by closures – like administration, hospitality and retail.
As a result, women with convictions are among those most committed to finding employment. With competition for jobs increasing, it’s more important than ever to make sure they aren't left behind.
The cycle of poverty and offending
Once a woman has committed a crime, she can enter a cycle of criminalisation that is hard to escape. Research shows that among women, poverty is a major risk factor for reoffending. This is often down to exclusion from employment opportunities – if lack of money has led you to commit a crime, and your criminal record makes it harder to get a job, you can become locked into a pattern of offending.
Of women who are sent to prison, before custody 81% are unemployed, compared with 8% of the general population. 6 in 10 women are released from prison homeless, at which point they are handed a discharge grant of just £46, a sum that has remained the same since 1996. After custody, women are three times less likely to be employed than men.
Poverty can be a driver for offending even for women who have jobs or are claiming benefits.
In many cases, minimum wage barely covers household expenses, particularly for women caring for children. 38% of women with convictions committed their offence to support their children.
Poverty is especially linked to 'acquisitive' crimes like theft or fraud that are the most common offences among women. Women are also disproportionately likely to be locked up for TV licence evasion and child truancy, both linked to low household income.
The two main causes of poverty are inadequate social security and failings in the labour market. When we look behind a woman's conviction, it is often benefits that are too low to comfortably cover the essentials, or the inaccessibility of a living wage, that led her there.
Candy is a single mum who was working three days a week in a shop when she began struggling to pay the nursery costs for her young daughter. She was staying in temporary accommodation, and her Universal Credit allowance barely met a quarter of her childcare costs.
When the nursery said that she had to pay her outstanding fees or her daughter wouldn’t be able to come in any more, Candy panicked. The only alternative was to quit her job to look after her daughter. She knew this wasn’t an option. ‘I wouldn’t have had any money, I wouldn’t be able to top up gas and electric, buy food, buy nappies,’ she said. Plus, her daughter would miss out on the social and developmental benefits of nursery.
Candy made a difficult decision, and took money from the till at the shop where she worked. It was just enough to meet the nursery fees. ‘It was solely to keep my head above water and so I could keep working to feed my daughter and myself.’
I felt pressure from all angles. I felt pressured at work, I felt pressured at home.
Working Chance client
It was Candy’s first offence and she didn’t receive a custodial sentence, but she still suffered after being convicted. Once she lost her job, she was living on almost no money and only eating one meal a day. ‘It was so hard. My daughter was growing out of her clothes and I couldn’t buy her new ones.’
What made things worse was, ironically, now that she had a criminal record it was harder than ever for Candy to find another job. ‘I get judged by it. You miss out on opportunities because people think of you as a criminal.’
Zahra claimed Universal Credit the day she was released from prison in October 2020, knowing that she wouldn’t survive without receiving benefits. She had no home to go to since her housing benefit was halted when she was sentenced. Huge numbers of women in prison lose their tenancies this way and are released homeless.
Since there is a five-week wait for the first Universal Credit payment, Zahra took out an advance loan. The money she received that day would tide her over until her first payment, but she would have to pay it back over the coming months, meaning that she was plunged straight into debt.
For two months, Zahra received around £400 a month on Universal Credit to her personal account, which met her basic expenses while she lived in a flat that was provided for her by a homelessness charity who assist vulnerable adults. Universal Credit covered her rent, with the money sent straight to her landlord. However, in November, the amount she received to her personal account dropped suddenly and without warning.
It turned out that Department for Work and Pensions had recalculated the housing allowance that they were willing to cover. It had fallen drastically – by about £400. This meant that all of the money Zahra had received directly would now go to the landlord. In December, she received £4 to live on for the month. Since January, she has received nothing at all.
When you haven't got assistance and bare necessities cost an arm and a leg , you're going to end up a burden. You'll never be able to survive.
Working Chance client
Now, as she struggles to get by, she understands why some women feel forced into offending to support themselves.
‘I am not going back to jail for anyone – it’s a horrendous place. I had a horrible experience there. But when you’re put in a predicament, you might feel forced to do some artful dodger moves.’
Zahra has survived by depending on multiple charities and a food bank for essentials. She says that she worries about rehabilitation, since ‘with a criminal record it’s harder to get employment.’ She suggests that it would be helpful if the government provided skills training for work, including soft skills like communication and networking, that many women in prison are not offered.
‘How can you become a productive member of society when you’re negotiating multiple different systems, with tech difficulties and mental health issues, remotely, in a pandemic?’
Poverty reduction as crime prevention
The link between poverty and offending is so obvious that even police chiefs have pointed out the link. Last week, Andy Cooke, the retiring head of Merseyside police said that cutting poverty and inequality is the best way to reduce crime.
While it is simplistic to say that poverty causes criminal behaviour, we know that the majority of people who receive criminal convictions are among the most economically disadvantaged in society.
Lack of financial independence is a significant risk factor for women who offend. Women’s offences are more likely to be financially motivated than men’s, yet they are less likely to find work after a conviction. This is troubling, since employment is the number one driver in preventing re-offending. A job brings stability and purpose, and has the power to pull somebody out of a cycle of poverty and offending.
Being poor is a crime.
Working Chance client
We all have a responsibility to ensure that everyone can enjoy a decent standard of living. To reduce crime and reoffending, we must free women from the constraints of poverty. That means supporting women with convictions: by increasing the prison discharge grant and through the gate support, providing benefits that cover rent and living costs, ensuring that women have access to meaningful work, and offering the skills they need to obtain it.
The alternative—criminalisation—locks women into poverty and restricts their options. It is the furthest thing from justice in an already unequal society.