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Out of Prison, But Still Out of a Job

Amy Traub

We all deserve an equal opportunity to be hired based on our experience and abilities. Yet discriminatory hiring continues to shape the U.S. labor market in ways that systematically disadvantage people of color, women, LGBTQ workers, people with disabilities and other targeted groups. Due largely to the stigma of a conviction record, formerly incarcerated people face some of the toughest barriers to securing work. Now, thanks to new research from the Prison Policy Initiative, we know how extraordinarily high their rate of unemployment is.

In 2008 (the most recent year for which data are available), unemployment among the general public was 5.8 percent. Yet formerly incarcerated people faced an unemployment rate of more than 27 percent. As researchers Lucius Coulote and Daniel Kopf point out, this level of joblessness is higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during the Great Depression. And unemployment was highest within the first 2 years after release from incarceration: More than 30 percent of job seekers were unemployed within the first 2 years of release.

African American job seekers are hit particularly hard. In the first place, communities of color are disproportionately impacted by incarceration as a result of racial bias throughout the criminal justice system. The unemployment rate was higher for black job seekers who had been incarcerated, particularly black women, than for white men or women who had been incarcerated.

Job seekers with an arrest or conviction record deserve a chance to start fresh. Each year nearly 700,000 people return to our communities from incarceration; everyone has a stake in ensuring that they are able to integrate back into society and to support themselves and their families. Formerly incarcerated people who are able to obtain steady employment are less likely to re-offend. Yet the Prison Policy Initiative’s new findings show how inadequate our current policies are at reintegrating returning citizens.

In our federal policy briefing book, Everyone’s Economy, Demos recommends policies that include requiring employers to remove questions about arrest and conviction from initial job applications (known as “ban the box”); mandating that employers wait until after they make a conditional offer of employment to request a job applicant’s arrest or conviction record; and following hiring guidelines from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which direct employers to take into account the time passed since the offense, whether the offense is related to the job, and evidence of rehabilitation. The recommendations draw on best practices developed by the National Employment Law Project.

While 30 states, as well as many local jurisdictions, have adopted some form of fair-chance hiring policy, these efforts have not gone far enough. The Prison Policy Initiative recommends additional reforms around expunging criminal records, reforming occupational licensing rules that bar people with past convictions, and offering tax incentives to employers who hire people with a conviction record. A public jobs guarantee (see page 40 of Everyone’s Economy) would go further to address the problem: By making the federal government an employer of last resort for the formerly incarcerated and any other Americans seeking work, involuntary joblessness would be eliminated. People with conviction records would have far greater opportunity to reintegrate into their communities and support themselves and their loved ones. The rest of us would too.