Roughly 77 million people across the U.S. are burdened by a criminal record. They confront substantial barriers to obtaining and keeping employment and, more importantly, to upward mobility. These barriers are even more acutely experienced by people of color.
Access to employment is critical to preventing future incarceration. Yet, people with criminal records suffer from an alarmingly high and stubborn 27-percent unemployment rate, despite record-low unemployment rates in most labor markets around the country. Unemployment rates for black people with criminal records are 30-40 percent higher than the national average. People recently released from prison are the most likely to be unemployed or underemployed, with a 32-percent unemployment rate among people released in the prior two years. This number drops to just 14 percent for people released four or more years prior. When this population does find work, it is often part-time and at low wages, especially for women of color.
There are four major barriers that hamper economic opportunity for this population:
People who are incarcerated tend to have lower levels of educational attainment than the general population, making it more difficult for them to compete with other applicants
For instance, 36 percent of people in state prisons attained less than a high school education, as compared with 19 percent of the U.S. population. Only 14 percent of people in prison have some postsecondary education, versus 51 percent of the U.S. adult population. Correctional education programs are proven to both reduce the likelihood of recidivating and increase the odds of finding employment after release. However, such programs are not always available, and those that are available are not always of high quality or tied to employer needs in the communities to which people return from prison or jail. Barriers to postsecondary education also proliferate both behind the walls and upon release, as a forthcoming 50-state study from the CSG Justice Center will detail.
People reentering their communities often face significant bias when seeking employment
In one study, only 40 percent of employers reported being willing to consider hiring a person with a criminal record. Having a criminal record is more detrimental to the employment prospects of black applicants than it is for white candidates; black applicants with criminal records have a callback rate of only 5 percent.
Regulatory barriers limit the types of occupations people with convictions can access
There are 40,000 collateral consequences of conviction nationally, and nearly 14,000 of them limit access to occupational licensing. Those barriers range from specifically prohibiting a person with a misdemeanor conviction from working in a nursing home to broader bans, such as denying public employment to anyone with a felony or misdemeanor. This significantly limits career advancement options for people returning home—particularly in higher-wage, middle-skill occupations.
Even when employment is secured, keeping it and advancing in the job is hampered by the looming prospect of incarceration while on probation or parole
In 2019, the CSG Justice Center’s groundbreaking report, Confined and Costly, underlined the outsized role that probation and parole revocations play in driving prison admissions: An astounding 45 percent of state prison admissions nationwide are due to violations of supervision. In 20 states, more than half of admissions were from these violations. On any given day, nearly 280,000 people in state prisons—almost 1 in 4—are there as a result of supervision violations, costing states more than $9 billion annually. These findings highlight that people on community supervision are at great risk for incarceration. Disruptions in employment due to incarceration impact lifetime wage growth and diminish lifetime earnings by as much as half. Thus, reducing incarceration could have significant positive impact on wage growth and lifetime earnings for this population.