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2. Understanding applicants with criminal records

People with criminal records are a broad and varied group. There is no universal common attribute that can be assigned to people with criminal records, which is why a blanket policy or approach will never be appropriate.

What is a criminal record?

If a person has a criminal record, this means there is data held on them relating to a caution or conviction, generally for a recordable offence, on the Police National Computer. There are complex rules about how much of this data has to be shared or disclosed and in what circumstances. Currently, all cautions and convictions stay on the police record – and individual police forces may also hold additional information on people, including arrests or accusations that didn’t lead to convictions.

Any conviction from the age of ten remains on the police computer, and therefore is part of someone’s criminal record.

Less than 10% of people that receive a criminal record go to prison. Nearly 80% of all sentences handed down are fines.

Some people with a criminal record received cautions without ever ending up in court, and people can even have a criminal record without being charged with an offence.


Who has a criminal record?

Over 12 million people in the UK have a criminal record. People with criminal records are a broad and varied group. There is no universal common attribute that can be assigned to people with criminal records, which is why a blanket policy or approach will never be appropriate.

Of those who contacted our helpline for higher education advice in the last year, the average time passed since a person received their criminal record was 13 years. The majority of these were for low-level sentences, such as a caution or fine.

Applicants and students with criminal records may face intersecting disadvantage. Evidence shows that some groups are disproportionately subject to law enforcement in the UK, and therefore more likely to acquire a criminal record. These groups are subject to harsher punishments, and therefore more likely to have a criminal record that follows them for longer.

Many of those in the UK who are disproportionately criminalised are also those who fit within traditional widening participation groups.



Racialised Communities

There is extensive research evidencing that people from racialised communities face disproportionately negative outcomes at all stages of the criminal justice system. To give just a few examples; David Lammy’s review of racial disparity in the criminal justice system found that men from racialised communities were 240% more likely to be sentenced to prison for certain offences than white people for the same crimes. Lammy also highlighted the dangers of what he termed the ‘second sentence’ imposed by criminal records in the letter accompanying the review. While total numbers of children imprisoned has decreased in the last decade, the proportion of black children who are imprisoned has increased.

Children and Young People

Children and young people caught up in the criminal justice system are more likely to have previously been excluded from school and faced learning difficulties. Young adults who received custodial or non-custodial sentences/cautions had lower levels of attainment at Key stage 2 than those without criminal records. The so-called school-to-prison-pipeline is increasingly well-evidenced.

People with experience of statutory care

Nearly 60% of children in custody in England and Wales reported having been in local authority care.

People who are neurodivergent

In 2021, an estimated 50% of those in prison in England and Wales were neurodivergent. There is little understanding of neurodivergence in statutory services. This increases the risk of a person’s behaviours not being recognised as a manifestation of their condition. This potentially increases the chance of arrest or decreases the likelihood of diversion away from the criminal justice system.

People from Gypsy, Irish Traveller and Roma backgrounds

6-7% of people in prison in 2020/21 were from gypsy or Irish traveller communities, despite only constituting an estimated 1% of the general population. Evidence suggests that people from Romany gypsy and Irish traveller communities receive more custodial sentences due to a misconception that they are more likely to abscond. Gypsy and Roma children are more likely to have been excluded from school than any other ethnic group.


Class & socioeconomic status influence who receives a criminal record in the UK; suggesting a criminalisation of poverty. Begging and rough-sleeping are routinely criminalised in England and Wales. Almost 70% of young people handed a custodial sentence had received free school meals in the past. Research suggests that a country’s levels of income inequality correlates with its rates of imprisonment; the UK has some of the highest rates of both in Europe.


Gender can also play a role. For example, the most common criminal record received by women in England and Wales is for for non-payment of a TV licence, accounting for 30% of all convictions for women. Women are more likely than men to receive short prison sentences, a majority of which for non-violent offences. Prison sentences are never filterable, regardless of the length of sentence. So a sentence of a few weeks will remain disclosable, in some situations (eg for access to regulated higher education courses), for the rest of that woman’s life.


Whilst not exhaustive, the diversity of experiences listed above demonstrates that a blanket approach to people with criminal records will never be appropriate or effective.

Students with criminal records may have intersecting experiences of disadvantage for which they may or may not wish to access support. Where higher education providers offer a support service for a particular area (for example, for those who have experienced care), they should ensure that these services speak non-judgmentally about criminal records.


“this conviction that has no bearing on my thoughts, values or actions as an adult is a constant hindrance. I will now be judged and stigmatised for the rest of my life…once I graduate, every single job will also require a meeting to discuss an offence from when I was 13.”


What might be the impact of a criminal record?

The serious, long-term impacts of a criminal record do not necessarily correlate with the seriousness of the conviction itself. Take, for example, the applicant for nursing who cannot enrol onto their dream course as a result of a school fight at the age of 13. Long-term discrimination means the end of a sentence is only the beginning of a life with a criminal record.

The following are a few examples of the practical impacts a criminal record can have:


  • Having a criminal record can make accessing banking or insurance services challenging
  • People with criminal records can be discriminated against when seeking housing
  • Finding employment can be difficult with a criminal record
  • People with criminal records may not get the financial compensation they deserve if they are victims of crime
  • Access to education (as discussed in this toolkit) can be hampered by a criminal record


Many people that we hear from haven’t disclosed that they have a record to their friends or family. Sometimes, criminal records can lead to familial estrangement.

Some people with criminal records fear not being taken seriously if they seek help (eg from the police or from health professionals) due to stigma associated with criminal records.

These experiences can be exacerbated by intersecting experiences of disadvantage. We have highlighted above how disproportionality in the criminal justice system may mean that those with criminal records are more likely to face discrimination of other kinds.

Cumulatively or as standalone experiences, all of these can lead some people with criminal records to feel isolated, face low self-esteem, or find it difficult to have hope for the future.



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