The Bureau of Justice Statistics claims that approximately 60% of formerly incarcerated individuals struggle with unemployment (Wang & Bertram, 2022), compared to the low unemployment rate of 3.7% for the general population (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022). A study released from the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2021 followed more than 50,000 individuals who were released from federal prison in 2010 and found that at any time during a four-year period, only 40% of formerly incarcerated individuals were employed, and those who were able to secure employment struggled with job retention (Wang and Bertram, 2022).
Staying out of prison is extremely challenging for former inmates. Yearly, more than 600,000 people are released from state and federal prisons, and nine million individuals are released from municipal or county jails. Within three years of their release, two-thirds of former inmates are rearrested, with more than 50% reincarcerated (Benecchi, 2021).
In order to decrease the high rate of recidivism for people leaving the prison system, it is important that these individuals be able to obtain employment that is considered high-quality, stable, and long-term. This has proven difficult as research has found that unemployment rates for this group is five times that of the general population (Couloute & Kopf, 2018).
Securing employment leads to many benefits for the justice-involved individual including an increase in self-esteem, a positive sense of identity, and ultimately a more stable lifestyle out of crime. Employing former inmates also has benefits for employers. It provides employers evidence of nondiscriminatory hiring practices, potentially qualifies employers for tax credits and free bonding services, expands small applicant pools, and reduces training costs especially when hiring candidates who have completed specialized job training while incarcerated (Miller, 2018).
Communities also benefit when people with a criminal record find good jobs. Poverty rates decrease, taxes are collected on earned income, and families are strengthened as the collateral effects of incarceration are minimized (Woodcome, 2022).
The Causes of the Problem
People who have been incarcerated generally experience four main issues in securing a job:
Lack of employability skills is a major issue for many individuals released from the prison system due to a lack of educational attainment. Nearly 80% of all individuals in prison lack a traditional high school diploma, although approximately 40% of inmates earn their GED while incarcerated (Romero, 2014). Without adequate education, these individuals struggle with basic skills such as literacy and math that are required to be successful in the workplace. Research has found that only 33% of people leaving prison actually use skills learned while incarcerated in their first post-prison job (Pownall, 1071). They often struggle with demonstrating soft skills such as punctuality, work ethic, and trustworthiness.
Job opportunities are limited as former inmates are not eligible to work for all employers because of legal restrictions. People with a felony on their record are generally unable to secure employment in education, state and federal government, medical, and security fields. Most occupations that require a license such as real estate agent, barber, or accountant require a clean criminal background as well (Story, 2018). Such restrictions leave low-paying, entry-level jobs as the typical employment option.
Individuals who have spent time in prison often express a negative attitude toward work. Because the formerly incarcerated tend to have limited education and training, an inconsistent or minimal work history, or demonstrate few employability skills, they struggle with low self-esteem, self-efficacy, and motivation (Brown et al., 2013).
Many individuals who have a felony record demonstrate a lack of motivation for engaging in the search for a career and find it difficult to participate in tasks required to secure employment such as investigating possible career choices, resume writing, and interviewing. Many justice-involved individuals have little motivation to seek out low-paying jobs that may not have a path for promotion.
For many former inmates, illegal careers are more motivating than legal jobs. Research has shown that many individuals leaving the prison system are more motivated to return to “careers” such as drug-dealing and shop-lifting because these illegal activities provide them with desirable outcomes including self-efficacy, a better than average income, and support from their peer group (Brown et al., 2013). For many former inmates, these illegal careers are more motivating and incentivizing than jobs that can be found within the legal employment network.
How Career Services Professionals Can Help
Career services professionals in private industry can support individuals seeking employment after incarceration. By realizing that the current system is not adequately serving this population, career professionals have the opportunity to make a difference by providing support to this population as they move from prison to a life after incarceration.
Career services professionals can become knowledgeable about employment law and how to educate this population of their rights in the workplace. Many state Departments of Labor are currently reevaluating pre-employment screening laws to make it easier for people with a criminal record to secure employment. Because many individuals with a criminal record also are of a minority race and live in poverty, Title VII of the Civil Right Act may protect job seekers against discrimination (U.S. EEOC, 2012). If employers use background checks to eliminate applicants, they must apply the standard equally for all applicants. Employers are also prohibited from refraining from hiring someone with only an arrest record because an arrest does not equal conviction. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides best practices for employers when considering hiring people with a record (U.S. EEOC, 2012).
The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires employers to provide applicants with all reports that have been generated before refusing to offer a position (Ackerman, 2020). Many states are currently rewriting laws that will make it easier for people with criminal records to expunge or seal their records (Hernandez, 2021), which will make it easier for this population to secure employment. Career services professionals can assist with navigating the application process by reviewing all reports for errors and getting the criminal record expunged or sealed, possibly by working with a local legal aid office.
Support groups can provide realistic advice, knowledge about community resources, and resources to obtain skills so that the justice-involved can be successful making and adhering to their career plan. Career services providers can learn about and refer clients to career support groups for this population to attain work and job search skills.
The Importance of this Task
Individuals face numerous obstacles after exiting the justice system and finding a job is vital to their success. Career services providers can positively impact recidivism rates by becoming better able to serve this population. By developing the knowledge of how to best serve this group, learning about the legal rights afforded these individuals, and addressing social and emotional barriers, Career services providers not only help heal the individuals they serve, but also their families and communities.
Ackerman. (2020). Background checks and the fair credit reporting act: Keep it simple! Akerman LLP. Retrieved October 11, 2022, from https://www.akerman.com/en/perspectives/hrdef-background-checks-and-the-fair-credit-reporting-act-keep-it-simple.html
Benecchi, L. (2021, August 8). Recidivism imprisons American progress. Harvard Political Review. https://harvardpolitics.com/recidivism-american-progress/
Brown, S. D., Lent, R. W., Knoll, M. (2013). Applying social cognitive career theory to criminal justice populations: A commentary. The Counseling Psychologist, 41(7), 1052–1060. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011000013482380
Couloute, L., & Kopf, D. (2018). Out of prison & out of work. Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/outofwork.html
Hernandez, K. (2021, May 25). More states consider automatic criminal record expungement. The Pew Charitable Trusts. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2021/05/25/more-states-consider-automatic-criminal-record-expungement
Miller, B. (2018). Benefits to hiring ex-convicts. HR Daily Advisor. https://hrdailyadvisor.blr.com/2018/01/23/benefits-hiring-ex-convicts/
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022). The employment situation – October 2022. Author. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2012). Enforcement guidance on the consideration of arrest and conviction records in employment decisions under Title VII of the civil rights act. US EEOC. Retrieved October 11, 2022, from https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/enforcement-guidance-consideration-arrest-and-conviction-records-employment-decisions
Wang, L., & Bertram, W. (2022). New data on formerly incarcerated people's employment reveal labor market injustices. Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2022/02/08/employment/
Kelly R. Parker, Ed.S., is an Internship Coordinator with Bentonville Schools in Bentonville, Arkansas where she works with high school students who participate in work-based learning experiences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/KellyRParker