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New data reveals disproportionate impact of criminal records on women

Read Unlock's latest briefing

Today Unlock publishes a new briefing, exploring the data we received in a recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS). The data highlights some of the ways in which our outdated criminal records system can disproportionately impact women.

Read the briefing

What does the data tell us?

Women are subject to more checks overall

  • Across the whole period, women were subject to 53% of all checks (10,583,887)
  • The proportion of checks to which women were subject rose annually by around one percentage point, from 52% of all checks in 2020 to 54% in 2022)

Women are subject to fewer basic and standard checks

  • Across the whole period, women were subject to 33% of the basic checks conducted (2,410,316) and 42% of the standard (456,163)
  • This figure was, however, rising annually by over 2 percentage points a year for basic checks (from 30% to 35%) and over 3 percentage points annually for standard (38% to 45%)

Women are subject to a large majority of enhanced checks

  • Across the whole period, women were subject to 67% of the enhanced checks carried out (7,717,408)
  • This figure was broadly stable year-on-year

What are the issues women face?

As evidenced in the data above, women are subject to a disproportionate number of enhanced DBS checks. This means that they will be disproportionately impacted by existing problems with the way elevated checks are used – for example, when ineligible checks are carried out. Existing examples in the criminal justice system of disproportionality and gender imbalances are often exacerbated by the use of elevated DBS checks in a variety of ways.

Firstly, the fact that women are more likely to receive short prison sentences leaves them vulnerable to long-term negative effects due to their criminal record. Secondly, the fact that women are more likely to be convicted for a non-violent offence means that their criminal record may lead to them being disproportionately judged as result of a poor understanding of disclosure information. Thirdly, the problems of societal stigma have a negative effect on women in the context of their criminal records being interpreted. Finally, women are likely to be subject to a disproportionate number of the ineligible checks that are conducted, whereby an individual is subject to a higher level of DBS check than the situation ought to trigger. Each of these issues serves to entrench the various barriers women with criminal records face in moving on with their lives.

What needs to change?

Based on the issues outlined above, we would advocate for the impact of a prison sentence on filtering to be made more proportionate. The fact that any prison sentence, suspended or otherwise, will always show up on an elevated check is disproportionate, failing to account for the variation in offences that prison sentences can represent. This has a greater impact on women, given they are more likely to receive short prison sentences, so progressive reform here would go some way to addressing gender disproportionalities. A more proportionate approach to short prison sentences’ impact on an individual’s criminal record is a central ask of the #FairChecks campaign led by Unlock and Transform Justice.

We also believe there are two issues to be addressed around the legislation concerning DBS checks, both of which require the DBS to be provided with the necessary resources to affect positive change:

  • Firstly, employers need to be provided with better guidance on the way in which DBS checks are intended to be used. DBS checks are not intended to provide employers with a binary outcome (besides reference to the barring list for certain roles), but we know that this often happens nonetheless. This bad practice is more likely to have a negative impact on women, with convictions of limited relevance showing up on checks. DBS guidance needs to be made clearer and more accessible to ensure that employers are better able to use criminal records information appropriately.
  • Secondly, better guidance and stronger enforcement to reduce the number of ineligible checks. In addition to providing employers with more clarity in respect of what level of checks are permitted for specific roles, there also needs to be more enforcement where ineligible checks are carried out. Currently, there is little enforcement around the misuse of DBS checks, meaning that employers who do make poor use of the system through conducting ineligible checks, deliberately or otherwise, have little to dissuade them from doing so. The enforcement capability of the DBS requires strengthening to ensure that best practice is widespread.

There is also work that has to be done to challenge existing narratives around what a criminal record means, especially where people who have received a caution or conviction are stigmatised and discriminated against. This is particularly relevant in respect of women, where outdated assumptions about gender still lead to greater stigma for women who commit offences. This stigma persists even though women with criminal records are likely to have experienced traumatic backgrounds which are often linked to any offending behaviour. We call on policy-makers and influencers (including the media) to use more person-centred language that puts the person first.

Jo Easton, Acting CEO of Unlock, said:

“Unlock hears about the stigma and discrimination faced by people with criminal records every day – and through our helpline, we know that women face distinct challenges. The DBS data showing that women are disproportionately subject to Enhanced checks is therefore really concerning. This briefing also links this disadvantage to others faced by women in the criminal justice system – taking all of this together shows how multiple issues interact to create multiple, inter-relating disadvantages for women with criminal records.”

Read the full briefing


Add Comment
  1. Congratulations on this briefing which is a much needed expose of the disproportionate impact of a conviction and prison sentence on women. I’ve spoken to women who have been unable to resume careers as nurses, midwives, teachers, because of the heavy-handed DBS system. A short prison sentence for a minor offence can turn into a life sentence of difficulty and disadvantage. And society is deprived of the women’s skills, energy and commitment. Reforming the system would be win-win for individuals and society.

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Debbie Sadler
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