Employing Ex-Offenders: Does the Charity Sector Do Enough?

The charity sector should be proud of all it has achieved when it comes to prison reform – the probation service, prison visiting schemes, an end to corporal punishment. These have all come about thanks to the sector’s long legacy of campaign work. And today, with the criminal justice system on its knees and more than double the number of people incarcerated than in the 1990s, we rely on charities working in prisons, with prisoners’ families and providing essential support for ex-offenders on the outside.

“ The UK’s criminal justice system would fall apart without charities. More people work in criminal justice charities than in the prison and probation services combined. ”

The Guardian, 12 July 2017

But despite all the good charities have done for ex-offenders, is the third sector as a whole living up to its values by welcoming job seekers with a criminal offence to join their team?

Are we doing enough as a sector?

It’s hard to know if charities that aren’t involved in the criminal justice system are doing enough here. Anecdotally there’s good will, but there’s a lack of published policies about the employment of ex-offenders by any of the big brands. They’re not advocates for it, and they’re not visibly participating in the key initiatives that help people with a criminal record find work – things like Ban the Box, See Potential and Unlock.

There are of course good reasons why a charity wouldn’t reveal how many people working for them have a criminal record. But it’s still surprising that the largest employers aren’t signed up to the schemes which allow for safe recruitment of ex-offenders. It means they’re not promoting a message to job seekers who have a criminal record that they’re welcome—and won’t be filtered out of the application process at the first hurdle (the criminal record “tick box”).

“ Application forms with an automatic question about whether a candidate has a criminal record can deter people from applying. Further along the process, perhaps at an interview stage, there could be a fair discussion about the offence and it’s relevance, rather than: That person has a record, so we won’t hire them. ”

Helen Berresford, External Director of Nacro, Director Magazine

According to Unlock, the award-winning charity helping people with criminal convictions find work, most companies continue to ask about criminal records at the job application stage. What’s more, research by the Department of Work and Pensions has found that three-quarters of British employers wouldn’t recruit someone with a conviction. We don’t know what the exact figures for the charity sector would be, but the available evidence isn’t encouraging.

opportunities for ex-offenders in charity sector

So, what’s holding charities back?

Ultimately, the most significant factor here is safeguarding. Wherever vulnerable or young people are involved, failsafe background checks are essential. And there are areas of work and specific roles where the need to safeguard the beneficiaries of the charity mean that a “blanket ban” approach is required.

DBS  checks are needed for many jobs within the sector and no one’s arguing that should change. But there’s nonetheless a responsibility to get the right balance between safeguarding beneficiaries and being fair to ex-offenders with an interest in working for a non-profit.

To err on the side of caution is understandable. But why put off potentially good candidates because an organisation hasn’t properly assessed the role and simply inherited the procedure of including a ‘criminal records’ tick box?

We all know that a criminal record covers a huge range of offences, including “victimless” crimes from a different time and a different place in someone’s life. A recent Supreme Court ruling shows the truth of this. It’s a significant victory in a campaign to reform the current criminal records disclosure regime which is thought to be unfair to people with more than one offence (however minor and however long ago).

Crimes that are ‘spent’ shouldn’t haunt someone’s life for years, but the current DBS filtering system means that can happen.

“ Employment is a strong protective factor against poverty, poor mental and physical health, substance abuse and re-offending. This in turn fosters less reliance on the welfare state, health care and other services. ”

Sarah Taylor, ACAS Trainer

A criminal record can impact someone’s career prospects for decades. The knock-on effect means that they’ll need more support from either charities or social services if they aren’t able to find work. Ultimately, it’s counter-productive that charities across the board aren’t proactively trying to assist in the employment of ex-offenders.

Viewing ex-offenders as an untapped resource

There are currently 11 million people in the UK and Northern Ireland with a criminal record. That’s one in five of the adult population. At a time of record employment and skills shortages, charities should be looking to recruit from this talent pool.

And there’s plenty of evidence from employers in the private, public and charity sectors that people who’ve been in our criminal justice system make committed, loyal workers. According to See Potential, the Government scheme which supports employers with open recruitment practices:

“Businesses report that employees from these groups go the extra mile to secure results, stay with their employer for longer, have a strong commitment to their organisation and lower rates of absenteeism.”

And there are examples of employers from all sectors whose experiences chime with this.

“The shame and pain of going through the criminal justice system often leads to people coming out the other side with a strong sense of fairness, of compassion, people who are non-judgemental of others and who have a strong sense of personal and professional pride in their work.” Judith Moran, Director, Quaker Social Action

Judah Armani, the founder of InHouse Records which works with inmates in prisons, says to Director Magazine: “these guys have a brilliance to them that doesn’t exist in any other sector. They have come through challenged that no one else has faced.”

Many voluntary organisations and charities grow out of self-help groups or out of the efforts of people with a lived experience of the issues they wanted to resolve. So, in some ways, a socially diverse workforce should be baked into the charity sector’s DNA. Charities have an additional social responsibility here because it’s crucially important to a person’s reintegration into society that they’re encouraged to feel they can contribute in the voluntary sector.

ex-offender working in charity

Ensuring diversity and inclusion in your workforce

As charities and the sector have become ever-larger over time, it’s important to check back on employment policies to make sure that they’re still able to create a workforce with social value. It’s about broadening the “white, middle class and female” stereotype of our sector to include people from different backgrounds, ethnic groups and of all ages. It also means including people who’ve been in prison or acquired a criminal record in the past.

Open recruitment is how you do it. It’s how our sector can be a truer representation of society as a whole—and how individual charities can be better at reaching their beneficiaries with the right help, in the ways they need it. The first step is reevaluating your recruitment policy and finding ways you can eliminate potential discrimination. Here are a few tips to help get you started.

Open recruitment checklist for ex-offenders

Don’t forget that people with a criminal record or who’ve spent time in prison are in many ways the known quantity – they’ve paid a price and investing in them unlocks many benefits, as much as it’s also the right thing to do.

For more information: The employment campaign See Potential provides invaluable advice to employers seeking to strengthen their workforce in this way. As do organisations like NACRO, Business in the Community, Unlock, Working Chance, The St Giles Trust and ACAS. They can advise you on best practice for employing people with a criminal record—as well as more generally about how you can facilitate open recruitment in your organisation.

Download our open recruitment policy checklist

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About the author

Jean Merrylees

Jean Merrylees is a freelance content writer and editor who has previously written for the BBC. Jean is now taking her first steps into the charity sector after spending some time writing for both Diabetes UK & CharityJob.

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