Irish Penal Reform Trust

UK: ‘Angels or Witches’ The Impact of Criminal Records on Women

8th March 2021

This report was produced as part of the ‘Unlocking Experience Project’ which collected evidence on the experience of people with criminal records, including first-hand evidence from those who look back on their criminal record with hindsight and a clearer perspective, as well as quantitative and statistical data.

The report considers the post-conviction problems faced by women with criminal records.

“I will never be able to be free of the memories of the experience and the consequence this had on the rest of my life. You are looked at differently in all settings because you are seen as a violent criminal with no self-control. We are all capable of making a mistake. The punishment in my case seems to be lifelong, not just 50 hours of community service” (Survey respondent)


Findings

  • The vast majority of women surveyed (86%) cited employment as one of the problems they faced. While women are overall less likely to have a criminal record, they are significantly more likely to face barriers when accessing employment roles that require enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service checks
  • Women face stigma because of their criminal record and it is often exacerbated by their gender. This was the second biggest problem, with 12% citing it as their biggest problem. Moreover, 51% of women surveyed thought that the problems they faced as a result of the criminal record were exacerbated by being a woman.
  • Women’s criminal records often exist alongside trauma, without specialist support. Nearly two thirds (59%) of women reported having experienced domestic abuse at some point in their lives. A tenth said they have been a sex worker at some point in their lives and 31% had experienced addiction or substance misuse.
  • Other problems women experience with post-conviction records include maintaining relationships; volunteering; travelling abroad; getting insurance; attending university; obtaining housing supports; and various mental health issues.


Recommendations

  • The Ministry of Justice should swiftly implement reforms to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, including abolishing lifelong disclosure of criminal records
  • The government should legislate to enable legal action against employers who take spent convictions into account
  • The government should require employers to give meaningful reasons, in writing, where they decide a criminal record makes someone unsuitable for a role
  • The Home Office and Ministry of Justice should jointly conduct a root and branch review of the criminal record disclosure system, specifically including the proportionality and impact on women and people with other protected characterises
  • Deeper research into the gendered aspects of post-conviction problem is needed, an analysis of whether and how the problems vary over time
  • Organisations in the women’s sector and criminal justice sector should explore ways of working together to improve understanding and support for women with criminal records, taking into account multiple, overlapping needs and experiences of trauma
  • Government and other funders should seek to fund specialist women’s sector organisations to support women experiencing post-conviction problems alongside their trauma

Interestingly, the report also notes that it is not just as simple as looking for other jobs where they do not have to disclose their criminal record, as labour is gendered and access to unskilled or semi-skilled work often means construction for men, care and retail for women.

A criminal record has a wide-ranging impact on women and regardless of the offence type, sentence and length of time ago, difficulty with employment remained the biggest problem that women face, with convictions with employment rates for women leaving prison much lower than that of men. For jobs covered by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, the simplest solution would be to enable more convictions to become spent, and all convictions to become spent sooner. This would have the effect of reducing the number of women impacted by the need to disclose for these jobs, without significant change to the framework of criminal record disclosure.

Read the ‘Angels or Witches: The Impact of Criminal Records on Women’ Report on the Unlock For People With Convictions Website here

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