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

Black women with criminal records face harsher barriers to employment, a new report has found.

Racism in criminal justice has lifelong consequences for women of colour, who face harsher employment barriers after a conviction than white peers, according to new research.

A report from charity Working Chance found that women of colour with criminal records face tougher challenges in securing jobs, progressing in their careers, and getting their lives back on track than white women in a similar position, with Black women facing the highest hurdles.

“Racially minoritised women are less likely to have access to social support and services, and more likely to be policed, arrested, and receive harsher punishments than white women, which means their criminal records last longer,” said Olivia Dehnavi, research author and Policy and Research Officer at Working Chance, a charity supporting women with convictions into employment.

“Long after their sentences are over, racially minoritised women face harsher consequences due to their criminal records. Most employers are hesitant to hire candidates with criminal records so minoritised women are effectively excluded from the job opportunities they need to rebuild their lives and support their families.”

Since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been major scrutiny of racial inequalities in policing. This report highlights how racism in criminal justice affects women long after completing their sentence.

Women are almost three times less likely to be employed upon release from prison compared to men, according to a previous study by Working Chance and the Prison Reform Trust.

Research has shown that women are almost twice as likely as men to have their criminal records disclosed on a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, partly because the professions that women tend to enter, such as education and care work, require enhanced DBS checks.

“I did well at school, then trained as a social worker and physiotherapist, and have a Master’s degree. But instead of my achievements, discrimination and my conviction have defined my life for the last ten years,” said Ruby, one of the women whose experiences informed the research.

Even when they secure a job, people from racially minoritised groups are more likely to be disciplined or judged harshly in the workplace. They are also less likely than white colleagues to obtain opportunities to progress in their careers, the research found.

“The intersections of my identity, my ethnicity, mental health issues, debt, low income, the area I live in – it all collides and makes the worst-case scenario,” said Cheryl, another woman who contributed her story to the research.

Racially minoritised groups are overly represented in the criminal justice system. 18% of the women’s prison population are from a minority ethnic group, compared to 14% of the general population, according to government figures.

“During my trial, I didn’t see a single person in the courtroom who wasn’t white. As a Black woman, I didn’t see myself represented there. I know that racism played a role in my case, and had an impact on my sentence,” Jess said in the report. “When I got to prison I saw the same thing there. White women got preferential treatment and didn’t get disciplined as often as Black or brown girls.”

Poor support in prison and compounded mental health issues and trauma place many women in a vulnerable situation when they leave custody.

“A job, an income, and a sense of purpose is fundamental for women to move forward with their lives. Yet these opportunities are made much harder to access for racially minoritised women,” Natasha Finlayson OBE, Chief Executive of Working Chance said.

The research is based on the lived experiences of women with convictions. Of the women Working Chance supports into employment, 62% come from a racially minoritised group, with 35% Black, 13% Asian, and 14% mixed race.

“We urge the government to combat this inequality by accelerating the implementation of recommendations in the Lammy Review and in the Ministry of Justice’s Female Offender Strategy,” Natasha said. “Employers also have a huge role to play to create a fairer playing field, starting with inclusive hiring practices.”

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