“I Fought the Law and the Law Won”

An Exploration of the Government’s Approach to Reducing Recidivism and Increasing Employment Rates Amongst Ex-Offenders


In the immortal words of Mahatma Gandhi “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes”. We feel this sums up the situation many ex-offenders find themselves in in modern Britain. What, we ask you, is the point in releasing offenders from prison if they cannot fully reintegrate with society?

Well, that is what we can’t understand.

Employment is integral to being an active member of society. Those who work, in theory, can support themselves - which relieves pressure on the state - and therefore leads to overall better morale. Not to mention, whilst in employment past offenders are less likely to return to a life of crime. However, going through the criminal justice system leaves ex-offenders in a difficult situation. After they have supposedly completed their punishment and are ready to return to society, many are in a position where they are stigmatised by potential employers and have a severe lack of consistent support.

Of course, some criminal activity should exclude certain offenders from working in specific areas, such as with children. However, it seems unfair to us that all ex-offenders, regardless of the crime(s) they committed, are subjected to a potential lifetime of unemployment. We shall discuss the aforementioned issues and how we believe the government should respond in tackling the reintegration problem.

“The essence of strategy is that you must set limits on what you’re trying to accomplish” - Michael Porter, American Academic

Recidivism costs taxpayers £15 billion per year, and that is without considering the cost of benefits and lost taxes when people are out of prison but not working. The government has recognised this issue and they, alongside NGOs, are attempting to remedy this in numerous different ways. Herein, unfortunately, lies a big part of the problem. There is a “fragmented, duplicated and difficult to navigate” landscape of education and employment support (The Novus Foundation). As the employment charity Seetec states, the issue is not the availability of support, but the added complexity due to the amount of people who are trying to help, and the lack of structured signposting.

Examples of a lack of synthesis in prison training programmes can be found across the UK. A quick google reveals a relatively huge number of charities and organisations offering a wide variety of help. For example, the Aberdeen Law Project currently run a Prisons Project, in which volunteers go into a local prison and offer workshops on CV and interview skills, as well as how to deal with disclosure of convictions. This this an excellent service which has benefited many. However, the service is not offered in all prisons, illustrating the issue with a lack of overall strategy.

There is also an ongoing debate on whether NGOs should even be involved, or if it should solely be the government’s responsibility. There are arguments for either side, but the fact of the matter is many people fall through the cracks of government support. For example, it is widely regarded as the government’s job to ensure the population is literate. When looking at statistics such as 46% of people entering the prison system have literacy skills no higher than those expected of an 11-year-old, however one would be forgiven for not praising the government’s accomplishments. Thus, NGOs often have to come in and offer support. Undeniably NGOs do good work, but the many different organisations clearly lead to a discrepancy in services based largely on the location of prisons. Therefore, we don’t think it would be a step forward to stop NGO involvement, but it would be advisable if NGOs perhaps worked more closely with the government and each other so there can be a more succinct approach.

On this same train of thought, spent convictions under The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 lead to convictions not needing to be disclosed to employers after a specified amount of time (dependent on the sentence imposed). While on the surface this appears logical, the period before a conviction can be spent differs across the UK, such as between Scotland and England, and the different sentence lengths have wildly different rehabilitation periods. This leads to unnecessary inconsistency in how ex-offenders are treated when seeking employment.

“Before We Can Forgive One Another, We Have to Understand One Another” – Emma Goldman, Political Writer

Just over 26% of prisoners enter employment on release. This may be due to the fact that 50% of employers in a 2016 survey would not consider employing an ex-offender. Some of the concerns employers in the survey had, include issues such as work skills and capabilities, unreliability and, rather quizzically, generally how to interact with them. Clearly, employer’s apprehensions in this area are holding back people who are trying to rebuild their lives. Are their concerns valid?

We don’t believe so.

In relation to their unease about interaction (which 28% of those surveyed were worried about), this can likely be put down to misconceptions held by many members of the public. Communicating with ex-offenders is no different than communicating with anyone else. In a 2018 Government report, the overall re-offending rate was stated at a stable 29.6%, while this may seem shockingly high to some, we can take from this that an overwhelming majority of people who leave prison do not intend to return to a life of crime. It is therefore unfair to discriminate based on the social misconception that interacting with ex-offenders in an employer-employee relationship is more challenging than “normal”. Furthermore, it is not necessarily true to say that they do not have the needed skills and capabilities for entry-level jobs. Even if they go to prison without any work related or transferable skills, many prisons offer opportunities to learn skills for those who want to, for example through the Prisons Education Trust.

While there are still issues with education in prisons and people leaving without the necessary life skills, it is unfair for employers to assume that all ex-prisoners are not capable of work. In relation to concerns that they are unreliable, these worries are also unfounded. There is no clear evidence that prisoners are any less reliable than people who have never been to prison. In fact, it would not be far-fetched to say that they could even be more motivated than the average worker. They are aware of the struggles they will face finding employment.

An employer that reflects a foreword thinking attitude in these areas is Virgin Trains, who go into prisons and actively recruit future employees. This has proven successful for both employer and their employees. One person who has benefitted from this was quoted in a government report saying, “I have changed myself to make myself a better person and it is all down to being given the help and the opportunity and the support that Virgin has given me.” Clearly, it would beneficial to society if more companies, particularly larger ones, replicate this attitude towards prisoners and ex-offenders. One could even go so far as to say this recruiting technique could boost their public image if the employer is seen as open minded and committed to lowering unemployment and crime rates.

“If You Walk the Footsteps of a Stranger, You’ll Learn Things You Never Knew, You Never Knew.” – ‘Pocahontas’, 1995, Walt Disney Feature Animation

We have considered the UK’s approach to reintegration of prisoners after release and identified two clear issues. It is helpful now to consider the tactics of other countries who are attempting to deal with similar problems. The USA and Scandinavia have different policies which are useful to compare and contrast with.

The United States Department of Labor has a Reentry Employment Opportunities Programme (REO) which differs from the UK’s methods. They focus on offering assistance to young and older offenders both while incarcerated and upon release. However, they place emphasis on changing the attitudes of employers and educating them on “why individuals with criminal backgrounds make viable candidates and excellent employees”. Their website shows many helpful links for both employers and those looking for work. For example, it is easy to find out the benefits of hiring ex-prisoners. Benefits include the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which gives tax-discounts to employers who hire low income ex-offenders. Furthermore, America offers the Federal Bonding Program, which is insurance for employers who may be concerned about theft or dishonesty from an employee, which negates a possible concern employers may have. The UK Government have admitted they need to do better in this area, but at the time of writing there has been no formal move forward.

A few years ago, the phrase ‘Ban the Box’ was thrown around often during discussion on how to help ex-offenders into work. David Cameron even mentioned the concept in 2013, although it was not instated. But what is ‘Ban the Box’?

Essentially, it is a policy which means employers don’t find out about candidate’s criminal record until they are reasonably far in to the recruitment process, where appropriate. This allows the potential employee to show themselves in the best light and stops their application being disregarded from the offset. In the USA, this is a statutory requirement for government employers and companies in their supply chain. This proved to be successful in the city of Minneapolis, where after banning the box 57.4% of applicants with convictions in the last seven years were hired (2007–08), compared to just 5.7% hired before (2004-6). It has even been suggested that the US Government should expand this legal requirement to apply to all employers because of its success. A UK government report considered the achievements of this statutory change and recommended that the UK should also ‘Ban the Box’ for all employers. However, once again, we have seen no real progress in this.

A collection of countries well known for diverging from the Western norms in this area is Scandinavia. While other countries struggle to find a balance between punishment and rehabilitation, Scandinavian prisons focus almost purely on rehabilitating offenders. They are known for good prison conditions, moderate sentence lengths and recognise the importance of the government’s role in helping them into work on release. The topic of the most appropriate prison system is a highly controversial one, and a topic we will not explore in depth here. However, studies have shown a clear link between systems that focus on training prisoners effectively which leads to higher employment rates on release. Therefore, it would not be unreasonable to suggest the UK Government should instil a more rigorous and progressive training program across all UK prisons, which reflects more closely what can be seen in Scandinavia.

“To Err is Human, to Forgive, Divine” – Alexander Pope

Discrimination in the workplace, in theory, has been outlawed by legislation such as The Equality Act 2010 which sets out nine protected characteristics. If people face discrimination based on one of these characteristics, such as age, sex, race or disability, the government and employers have a responsibility to act and protect.

As discussed above, one could argue that ex-offenders face discrimination when trying to find employment. A potential, but admittedly controversial, suggestion is that ex-offenders should be added to the list of protected characteristics. The social justice society NACRO reflects this. NACRO are committed to promoting equality and diversity in the UK in relation to both the official protected characteristics and ex-offenders. We believe this is the progressive attitude which should be reflected more fully throughout the whole of the UK.

In modern society, it is viewed as outrageous that an employer would not consider hiring someone because of certain individualities. While it may be inaccurate to directly compare characteristics such as religion and gender to past criminal offences, it is something which is nevertheless worth considering. Obviously, there are some situations where it would not be appropriate to hire people with certain histories for particular jobs. However, there are already barriers put in place to protect vulnerable people from this type of issue, such as the Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) scheme.

Additional checks could be put in place by statute to ensure that members of society who need safeguarded have adequate protection from those who have committed certain crimes, like sexual offences. This would ensure that the population are protected while ex-offenders do not face undue discrimination and are given an equal chance.

Final Thoughts

The infrastructure that is currently in place to assist ex-offenders into employment is clearly not focused enough. The lack of strategy hinders any possible development despite the best of intentions of NGOs and, to some extent, the government. We would suggest looking at prisoner education and rehabilitation models such as the one in Scandinavia. We believe to fully tackle these problems, a more cohesive strategy and the power of positive thinking is needed to lead them on the road to righteousness/ successful reintegration to society.

We identified a further hindering factor for ex-offenders, this being the attitudes of employers. While not all employers share the same unfounded concerns, this is a fairly widespread issue that needs addressed and it is fair to say the government holds some responsibility. Looking at the examples of other countries, such as the USA in this case, proves to be helpful in outlining possible solutions. The Reentry Opportunities Programme does vital work educating employers on the benefits of hiring ex-offenders. The UK could also consider more strongly the ‘Ban the Box’ movement that has proved a success in America thus far.

The suggestion of amending the Equality Act 2010 to include ex-offenders in the protected characteristics may seem drastic to some, but the government are failing in its responsibility to help ex-offenders change their lives and have a second chance. Therefore, such a radical change in legislation may legitimately be considered to be the logical way forward.

By Iona Garland and Susannah Scott, The Aberdeen Law Project