Ex-Offenders: Down but not out

Last Saturday, heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua held onto his 100% undefeated record, as he brushed past his latest challenger, and delivered his twentieth consecutive knock-out. The golden boy of British boxing, Joshua’s easy going charisma, down to earth nature (he still lives in a two bed flat with his mum) and fighter’s spirit has won him legions of fans, an MBE and an Olympic Gold.

But things could have turned out very differently. In 2007, an 18-year-old Joshua found himself on remand in HM Prison Reading, staring down the barrel of a 10 year sentence. After an agonising two week wait, Joshua was tagged and released. The tag turned out to be his greatest ally; ushering him into the regimented and disciplined life of a professional boxer. As he puts it, ‘my guardian angel decided I didn’t need to be punished with a jail sentence’.

Had his guardian angel been otherwise occupied that day, Joshua would be due for release this year. Rather than a 100% record, AJ would have spent 100% of his adult life behind bars. Instead of a shiny Olympic Gold, he would be armed with a life-long criminal record, and in lieu of the £10m prize money Joshua won on Saturday, he would be clutching a £46 prison discharge grant.

That £46 grant is available to each and every prison leaver - around 85,000 every year - and is intended to bridge the few day’s gap until they have been able to arrange their benefits. In reality, the wait for benefits is more like 6 weeks, and the wait for a job can be much longer. Despite data showing time and time again that employment is a sure fire way to reduce crime, the UK employment market is a totally inhospitable environment for ex-offenders, even decades after the offence occurred. For so many, the seemingly endless stretch of unemployment that follows prison release leads to poverty, homelessness, and ultimately re-offence.

Current employment practice  

Mainstream application forms currently rely on the criminal record tick-box, which is submitted before interview. With a YouGov survey revealing that 50% of employers would not consider employing an ex-offender (regardless of the offence or sentence), it is easy to see that this diminutive box effectively freezes ex-offenders out of work. 

The key piece of legislation in upholding the status quo is the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which enforces the concept of ‘spent’ and ‘unspent’ convictions.

A person who has been convicted of an offence, but does not reoffend during a specified time is considered rehabilitated. Their crime is legally ‘spent’; their record is clean as a whistle, and they no longer have to declare their conviction. However during the rehabilitation period, the conviction is ‘unspent’, and the box must be ticked. 

All of this is not only damaging to the individual, but it comes at enormous cost to society. It is estimated that reoffending costs the taxpayer between £9.5bn and £13bn every year, yet data has shown that offenders who have a job are up to seven times less likely to reoffend as their unemployed counterparts. So in hiring ex-offenders, we can make our communities safer, and protect public funds.

Social benefits aside, the opportunity for employers is of huge commercial value. This year the number of unfilled job vacancies is the highest since records began in 2001, with enormous shortfalls in industries such as textiles, construction and social care. As fraught Brexit negotiations continue, the UK edges ever closer to an exodus of our vital foreign workforce. In this period of uncertainty, employers across the board should look to invest in Britain's 11m strong pool of ex-offenders. They will find willing, talented and hard-working individuals looking for a clean slate. 

Rumblings of change

There are rumblings of change. In September, Tottenham MP David Lammy published a review lambasting a criminal record system in need of significant reform, and recommended that, in certain cases, unspent convictions could be sealed from employers. This proposal centred on a mechanism President Obama introduced in the United States, whereby individuals can apply to have their case heard by a judge or board, who would decide whether to seal their record.

Taking matters into their own hands, employment charity Nacro & BITC started a nationwide campaign, ‘Ban the Box’. Aiming to delay the disclosure of unspent convictions until after interview, and encourage disclosure in an environment that takes into consideration more than just a checked or unchecked box. The process they recommend involves employers contextualising offences. What were the circumstances? How long ago was the conviction? Has the individual shown signs of remorse and taken steps to change their life? If employers take this tack, 'offenders' are humanised, and a blanket approach becomes much more difficult.

We at TAP are proud to use this approach, and are working to ensure that disclosures are contextualised, relevant and fair. Other organisations who have made impressive efforts to disrupt the status quo are Virgin Trains (3% of Richard Branson’s hires last year were ex-offenders), Timpsons and Greggs. But, until more employers address their own policies, and take forward-thinking steps to readdress the status quo, Britain's ex-offenders will remain an untapped source of potential. Ignoring them will have social, economic and commercial ramifications. 

Joshua’s close shave, and the glittering career that has followed only serves to highlight the failings of the current criminal record system. Had things turned out differently, Joshua would have spent his entire life struggling to find a job; repeatedly knocked back by the 75% of employers who admit to using a conviction to discriminate against an applicant. His tenacity, dogged pursuit of excellence and amiable charm - just as powerful in business as in sport - would have gone unnoticed.

But that's a hypothetical situation; Joshua has a clean record, and will likely never fill out a job application in his lifetime. For the tens of thousands of ex-offenders who leave our prisons each year, the picture remains gloomy. Their talents and aspirations shelved; barred from the interview room by a small, black and white box on a piece of paper.