One of the most significant barriers to employment for women with convictions are the stereotypes they come up against. The best way to prevent reoffending is employment, since a job can give the financial security and fulfilment that means there is less reason for an individual to resort to crime. But being perceived through a narrow lens – as a perpetrator or a criminal – does untold damage for women who have moved on from their offence and are trying to find a job and rebuild their lives. Ideas about what makes a perpetrator means that risk-averse employers might be discouraged from hiring women with convictions, and it can be hard to convince them otherwise through a standard job application.
For International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we are unpicking the stereotypes through which women with convictions are seen. Unlike the narrative portrayed in media or by politicians who profess to be ‘tough on crime’, the reasons women offend are complex and layered. For every woman who offends, there is an untold story that is too often mired by violence and social exclusion.
The victim/perpetrator binary
The criminal justice system upholds a distinction between victim and perpetrator. Its job is to identify perpetrators and punish them, partly as reparation to their victims. But these categories are more nuanced than the criminal justice system allows for and perpetrators are often also victims themselves.
Being labelled as a perpetrator can have lifelong consequences for women, including loss of housing entitlements, damaged relationships, broken families, and difficulties in finding a job. Those who are criminalised often lose trust in the criminal justice system and its enforcers, such as the police.
Polarising victims and perpetrators oversimplifies the narrative, and risks ignoring the very real suffering that many women with convictions live with. Clearly, these labels cannot encapsulate the complexity of either offending or victimisation.
Women are aware of the harms of the victim/perpetrator narrative. One way that the narrative manifests is in forcing women to conceal domestic violence. Many women entering the criminal justice system will not report being victims of trauma or domestic abuse for fear of negative treatment. Having been labelled as perpetrators, they conceal the suffering they have endured for fear of complicating their case. Women fear being scrutinised or shamed for their suffering, and not being protected even if they speak out. They are scared of losing their children. This has damaging collateral repercussions, such as missing the opportunity to appeal a sentence. Many women, concerned that they won’t be believed, only disclose experiences of abuse after the 28-day appeal window and thus face harsher sentences.
Survivors of violence
Many women with convictions are survivors of domestic violence who were criminalised as they took action to protect themselves from harm. 7 in 10 women in prison report that they are a survivor of domestic violence. Women, who are mostly convicted of non-violent acquisitive crimes such as shoplifting, are often victims of much more serious offences than the ones they are accused of. Under outdated law, some women are even sent to prison for their ‘own protection’.
Research from the Howard League shows that many arrests of women are triggered by domestic violence incidents. Women arrested for violent offences often enter the criminal justice system because their own abuse led to the police being contacted. Women are three times more likely than men to be arrested in such incidents. Family relationships play an important role in rehabilitation after such occurrences, but for women they are sometimes a risk factor due to histories of familial abuse.
Some women’s offending is driven by coercion by men. This might take the form of duress to commit crime by a male partner or relative, or involve an attempt to cover up a man’s crime, store a weapon belonging to a man, or get hold of money to pay for a man’s addiction. Some of the foreign national women in prison are there because they have been trafficked or coerced into offending.
As well as domestic violence and coercion, there are many other types of violence that women with convictions may be subject to, especially those sent to prison. In fact, 53% of women in prison report having experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse as a child. Moreover, homelessness, substance addiction, poor mental health, and poor education can all expose women to violence. For instance, more than half of the women leaving prison have no home to go to. This lack of suitable accommodation makes women vulnerable to abuse and more likely to be recalled to prison.
When women are victimised, sometimes the perpetrators are people in their lives. But sometimes the perpetrator is the state. By excluding certain people, especially people who are poor and people from racialised minority groups, from the systems by which people can flourish – such as education, healthcare, and employment – they are at greater risk of violence and more likely to resort to offending.
Stereotypes and prejudice have a very real impact on women’s lives. The bias that people hold against women with convictions can affect their acceptance by the community, threaten custody of their children, and damage their chances of reintegration. ‘Spoiled identity’, an identity that causes a person to experience stigma, makes it much harder for women to find employment. It especially impacts employability in the sectors women disproportionately work in, such as care, social work and education.
Employers are influenced by stereotypes, just like anyone else. 50% of employers say they wouldn't employ someone with a criminal record, and 3 in 4 companies ask about criminal records at the job application stage, despite not being legally required to.
We have one of the most punitive criminal record disclosure systems in the world. Women feel the repercussions of a conviction long after they have left prison or served a non-custodial sentence. Having to disclose a criminal record to employers leaves women with convictions at a disadvantage as they try to rebuild their lives. Employers are able to discriminate against women with unspent convictions, and there is no legal protection for women who are fired because they have spent convictions.
The cycle of victimisation and offending can be broken by support from women-specific services. While criminalisation compounds the cycle of violence and exploitation, specialist women’s support services can offer the holistic measures that enable a woman to break out of this cycle and flourish without the burden of discrimination. Freedom from stigma and shame are integral to rehabilitation, but only possible if society lets go of preconceived notions about perpetrators.
The more we understand women with convictions, and the circumstances that led to offending, the better chance they have of moving on with their lives. The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, from 25 November to 10 December, is an opportunity for us to consider the complexity of violence and how it affects survivors. Many of those survivors are women with convictions, whose best chances lie in rehabilitation in the form of nurturing relationships, healing in the community, and obtaining meaningful employment. These simple things can go some way to preventing further harm from coming their way, but not until we let go of stereotypes and support women to move forward.