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Blog, Policy briefing | 02 August 2021

Worst-Case Scenario: Over-policed and harshly punished

Ruby has a Master’s degree and trained as a social worker and psychotherapist. But still, when she tried to leave her conviction behind her she found it incredibly difficult to get a job. “Instead of my achievements, discrimination and my conviction have defined my life for the last ten years,” she said.

Unfortunately, Ruby’s experience is common for racially minoritised women. Our latest research, Worst-Case Scenario, explores how racism in the criminal justice system harms women’s chances of finding work long after finishing their sentence.

As multiple research papers and our clients’ experiences show, a criminal record is a massive barrier to employment. This is the first in our #WorstCaseScenario blog series on how these challenges are much tougher for racially minoritised women, who face multiple and intersecting discrimination.

Racially policed and punished

At Working Chance, we talk a lot about the barriers to applying for jobs if you’ve got a conviction. But first, we have to understand how discrimination and exclusion can undermine someone’s chances long before they start writing a job application.

That’s because racially minoritised women are subject to structural disadvantage in society throughout their lives. When women cannot access support systems like education, healthcare or employment, they are more likely to face multiple disadvantage like homelessness, unhealthy substance use, poor mental health, violence or abuse, and therefore their chances of offending are higher. This is especially true of racially minoritised women, particularly Black British women and women with mixed backgrounds, who are more likely to suffer from economic and social deprivation.

Racially minoritised communities are also more likely to be over-policed, and be sentenced to custody for their offences. This means that Black and other racially minoritised women tend to have tougher and longer sentences than their white counterparts. In prison, the Lammy Review further found that racially minoritised women receive lower quality rehabilitative care, less support, fewer opportunities, but harsher punishments than their white peers.

So, racially minoritised women are more likely to be saddled with a conviction in the first place, and then their punishments are harsher. This means that racially minoritised women have to wait longer for their convictions to become spent, meaning they will show up on a criminal record check for longer. Many women who come to Working Chance tell us that their conviction follows them around long after their sentence is over: this is particularly true for racially minoritised women.

Many women who come to Working Chance tell us that their conviction follows them around long after their sentence is over

Looming criminal records

Because of these compounding effects, when applying for jobs, women with convictions have more to contend with than their white counterparts. First off, there's the notorious ‘tick box’ on application forms asking if you have a criminal record. Many women tell us that even seeing the box discourages them from applying in the first place.

More and more employers are now signing up to the Ban the Box campaign, committing to remove the tick box. But there are still other forms of discrimination at play. For example, employers may discriminate based on conscious or unconscious bias when they see an applicant’s name that suggests a minoritised ethnic origin. The data shows that such job applications return fewer invitations for interview than white British applicants.

Secondly, let’s look at Disclosure and Barring Services (DBS) checks. Depending on the job, a basic check allows employers to see all unspent convictions, while employers requesting an enhanced check can also see spent convictions. In 2020, changes to filtering rules mean very old or multiple spent convictions no longer show on DBS checks. The Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill also plans to make criminal records last shorter for many crimes.

While these are small steps in the right direction, they will impact a limited number of women, while for the vast majority, criminal records remain an enormous burden.

Finding an employer who’ll give you a chance

Then there’s the less visible barrier, which is employer prejudice. Evidence shows that almost half of employers would not consider hiring someone with a conviction, while 75% of employers admit to discriminating against people with a criminal record. Women tell us that they are absolutely dedicated to finding work, but struggle to find an employer who’s willing to take a chance on their future.

Meaningful employment is one of the surest ways to prevent reoffending, and gives a woman the chance to be financially independent and build a future for her and her family.

75% of employers admit to discriminating against people with a criminal record

All of these elements combine, leaving us with the simple facts: racially minoritised women are more likely to:

  • be criminalised
  • be left with criminal records that last longer, and
  • face much more significant challenges when applying for a job than white women with convictions.

Unfortunately, that’s far from the end of the story. Our next blog post will explore other barriers, including mental health and social stigmas that disproportionately affect women of colour. It is these elements that combine to create the 'Worst-Case Scenario'.

How racism in the criminal justice system harms women's chances of finding work

Keep reading: Worst-Case Scenario

More in the Worst-Case Scenario blog series: