A new briefing, Working It Out, published today by the Prison Reform Trust and Working Chance, reveals that fewer than one in 20 women (4%) were in employment six weeks after release from prison, compared with over one in 10 men (11%).

The briefing found that despite government recognition that employment for those who have been in trouble with the law is critical for reducing reoffending, too many women with a criminal conviction experience barriers to employment and do not receive adequate support. Enabling women to achieve financial independence is especially important for those whose offending is driven by abusive and coercive relationships.

Nearly three in five women (58%) leaving prison are reconvicted within a year of release, rising to nearly three-quarters (73%) of women serving sentences of less than 12 months.

The majority (73%) of prison sentences given to women are for six months or less, reflecting that a higher proportion of women commit less serious, non-violent offences than men. These sentences have the highest reoffending rates and leave little time to engage in education, training or work opportunities.

Women given community sentences are much less likely to reoffend than those who are sent to prison, yet the number of women in England and Wales receiving community sentences has decreased by over a third between 2008 and 2018.

The briefing highlights the disproportionate impact on women of the current rules for disclosing convictions and cautions. The most common sectors for women in the general population to work in are health and social work (21%), wholesale and retail trade (14%) and education (12%). Many of these roles are subject to an ‘enhanced check’—meaning that even convictions which have long been ‘spent’ must be disclosed.

Whilst checks on a person’s past are necessary in certain circumstances, it’s vital that these are proportionate and that the disclosure system recognises and supports people who have moved on to contribute positively to society, rather than keeping them trapped in the justice system.

In addition, the legal requirement under the 1974 Rehabilitation of Offenders Act to declare unspent (and sometimes spent) convictions if asked by employers can make it extremely difficult for people with a criminal conviction to find a job on release.

Other barriers affecting women’s opportunities are lack of childcare support, poor access to education and training opportunities, and low pay.

As well as identifying the barriers to employment, the briefing highlights initiatives such as the Ministry of Justice’s New Futures Network which has introduced work coaches in all women’s prisons, and profiles projects and schemes providing vital support to women, many delivered through women’s centres.

The briefing makes a number of recommendations to government and to employers to support more women with convictions into work, including:

  • Making the necessary changes to the disclosure and barring system to comply with the Supreme Court ruling made a year ago.
  • A comprehensive review of the proportionality of the wider criminal record disclosure system, including its impact on women.
  • Encouraging greater use of release on temporary licence (ROTL) to enable women to reconnect with the communities they will be released to, including training and employment opportunities.
  • Investment in community-based women’s centres to provide access to training, education and education support in a women-only environment, as many women in the justice system have been victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse.
  • Increasing the availability and quality of unpaid work placements for women which also take childcaring responsibilities into account.

Jenny Earle, Director of the Prison Reform Trust’s Programme to reduce women’s imprisonment said:

“It is widely acknowledged that most of the solutions to women’s offending lie in the community. Addressing the economic marginalisation that can drive women into crime, and the lasting impact of a criminal conviction, is therefore critical. Tapping into the skills and talents of women who deserve a second chance makes sense for families, the economy and society as well as women themselves. The government knows the solutions, and has already committed to many of them, but as our briefing reveals, a significant gap remains between aspiration and reality.”

Natasha Finlayson, Chief Executive of Working Chance, said:

“Women with criminal convictions face social exclusion, prejudice and multiple obstacles to employment, as this report shows. Most have survived very difficult childhoods as well as struggles with poverty, poor mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence. For the women we work with, a job is more than an income—it means a future where she can flourish and contribute to society. Supporting these women into employment creates social and economic value and makes society safer by reducing reoffending.”