Creating Decent Work for Women Exiting the Justice System

Approximately 4,500 women exit the criminal justice system across Australia each year.  Within 12 months over half of these women will be back in prison.

How can we interrupt this cycle and create decent work for women exiting the justice system?

During our recent process of refining TDi’s strategy to focus on three impact areas, we asked some big questions – questions we want to answer in alignment with our experience, passion, and strengths. Under our impact area of Womens Economic Equality, we asked ourselves: Which group of women face the greatest economic injustice in Australia?

In seeking to answer this question our research kept pulling us back to women exiting the criminal justice system. As a result, we began to ask: How might we work in partnership with others to create hundreds of jobs, in judgement-free workplaces for women exiting prison, using the tools of business and finance?

Over the last six months as we have researched and followed the many complex threads, we’ve discovered some key insights we believe are pivotal in understanding and addressing this fundamental justice and economic issue.

What we know

Approximately 4,500 women exit the criminal justice system across Australia each year. Within 12 months over half of these women will be back in prison.¹

Employment is one of the best predictors of post-release success, (alongside housing).² Decades of research underscores this. While prison significantly disrupts people’s working lives, being employed is one of the things most likely to prevent recidivism. Put simply, a job offers a lifeline.

It’s well understood that women with a criminal record face the greatest stigma of any group re-entering the workforce. The stigma of a criminal record is higher for women than it is for men.

In the employment space, there are several successful social enterprises and one employment service targeting female ex-offenders (Success Works), but it’s not enough to shift the dial. In fact, a recent research report showed that the greatest need of women exiting the criminal justice system is assistance to find and keep a job.

This is not just a justice issue, it’s an economic one.

According to the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce, we are currently missing out on $128 billion in value to the Australian economy, as a result of persistent and pervasive barriers to women’s full and equal participation in economic activity.³

The opportunity to unlock value for the economy in partnership with women exiting the criminal justice system is real and substantial. Based on well-known data, 1000 jobs in judgement free workplaces for female ex-offenders could deliver, at a minimum:

Economic and wellbeing benefits of work

Our ‘big bet’ for Women’s Economic Equality: Providing decent work for women exiting the criminal justice system

Under each of our Impact Areas sits a ‘big bet’, designed to accelerate positive shifts in our impact areas.

Our big bet: Decent Work For Women is all about partnering with justice sector non-profits to create judgment-free job opportunities and address intergenerational economic injustice.

Our focus: Empowering women with lived experience of incarceration, targeting economic injustice to break cycles of intergenerational disadvantage.

Our goal: Creating hundreds of new jobs for women exiting the criminal justice system, empowering them to find and keep a job, reducing recidivism, and strengthening their economic futures.

Our approach: We’ll work directly with non-profit organisations in the justice sector to address gender equity issues within existing businesses, and to incubate new businesses, working toward creating more inclusive and equitable workplaces.

After workshopping some initial ideas we reached out to the Keeping Women Out of Prison coalition (KWOOP) and other leading social enterprises in the sector, with encouraging responses. 

The opportunity

From where we sit, we see that we have a choice. We can continue as is and leave women exiting the criminal justice system to be the ones to knock down the walls of workplace stigma, or we can make a concentrated investment to create more judgement-free workplaces, whilst also using these ‘demonstrations’ to shift the bias amongst mainstream employers.

It is well known that the first job out of prison opens the door to further employment. But without a reference from an employer, the stigma remains.

Current situation
Potential future with investment

Why now?

The female prison population has grown in the last decade, increasing by 64% between 2010-2019. This impacts more than just the women experiencing incarceration: 53% of women in prison are primary carers. As a result, the cycle of imprisonment and re-offending captures not only the individuals themselves but also their children and families.

Whilst there are many interventions that are needed to prevent the flow of women into the criminal system in the first place (and the Victorian Legal Services Commission has funded some excellent projects in this space), the fact remains that 4,500 women exit every year and are stuck in unemployment.

It is our belief that now is the time to act, before the problem gets too big, and the intergenerational impacts are too embedded.

There also may be some unique opportunities to leverage other philanthropic funding available for Work Integrated Social Enterprises (WISE) through the WISE grant program, or access financial investment through the new Sustainable Employment Loan Fund for WISEs and, over time, potential to join the Social Enterprise PBO trial, currently underway.

Five pathways to decent work for women:

Our hypothesis is that there are five main pathways to creating employment outcomes for women exiting the justice system:

1. Start-up: Incubating new businesses with a mission to create judgement-free workplaces for female ex-offenders. How? Running accelerators over several cohorts to identify talent and incubate ideas and businesses, or building out two to three scalable enterprises that could employ 50-100 people.

2. Scale-up: Growing the existing social enterprises that focus on hiring ex-offenders or supporting women facing injustice. This could include a combination of capability support, investment, or other areas, depending on need.

3. Acquisition: Buying and turning around businesses to provide jobs for women exiting the criminal justice system. This would most likely involve setting up an investment fund that would buy the businesses in the first place. Support would then be needed to ‘transition’ the business from an impact perspective.

4. Self-employment/entrepreneurship: Supporting women exiting the criminal justice sector to start their own businesses.

5. Influencing mainstream workplaces: Supporting organisations like Success Works to influence existing workplaces to hire women with a criminal record.

What’s is the best way to create hundreds of jobs for women exiting the criminal justice system? We’re determined to find out.

We believe that more consultation and research is needed to understand which pathway, or combination of pathways, offer the greatest impact and cost-effectiveness.

Over the next three months we’ll be looking at the opportunities which exist in Victoria, working in close partnership with NFPs in this space. We know that employment is a crucial predictor of post-release success. But even more than that, we know that work offers a place of purpose, belonging, and financial independence. We believe it’s time to dismantle the barriers to creating more judgement free workplaces, and we’re committed to partnering with likeminded friends to help make this a reality.

If you share our passion, we’d love to have a chat. With the right investment and the right people, we can shift the dial. 

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Creating Decent Work for Women Exiting the Justice System

Approximately 4,500 women exit the criminal justice system across Australia each year. How can create decent work for these women and drastically reduce recidivism? We’re exploring five pathways forward for women’s economic equality.

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