Harvard Public Health Review


Why Public Health Practitioners Should Care About Job Prospects for People with Criminal Records: Employment Challenges and Successful Prison and Jail Reentry

Each year in the United States, over half a million individuals in prison and another nine million in jail will return to the community.12 Many of these men and women face extreme uncertainty when they are released: they may not know where their next meal will come from; they may not have a safe place to stay; they are often left without insurance or healthcare; their families may have left them; and very few know where to find work so they can begin to put food on the table and pay off court-ordered fines and fees. Among the myriad of needs a person has when they return from incarceration, individuals with criminal records and their probation or parole officers cite employment as the lynchpin to success.3

Although policymakers and corrections agencies have recently made it a priority to improve employment opportunities and outcomes for this population, many of the challenges are embedded in a system that continues to punish someone long after they have completed their sentence. A search in the American Bar Associations National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction website reveal nearly 30,000 statutes across the U.S. which address employment for people with criminal records. In Florida, occupational restrictions targeting people with criminal records affect approximately 40% of jobs.4 Beyond codified legislation, many employers use criminal background checks in the screening and hiring process, a practice, which deters many qualified candidates from even considering applying.

Routine exclusion of people with criminal records from the workforce has drastic consequences for individuals, families, and the economy. Job discrimination against those with criminal histories fuels poverty, recidivism and ultimately poor health in vulnerable populations. However, some states, counties, and municipalities have taken aim at ending these trends with so-called “ban the box” initiatives, which prevent employers from using criminal background checks unfairly during the hiring process. We review of the impact of incarceration on job-seekers and their families, as well as summarize how “ban the box” efforts can begin to undo systemic barriers to success after incarceration.

The Individual Experience

Although many people returning from incarceration see employment as the key to staying crime-free, less than half will have a job within a year.5 In fact, for the approximately 65 million people in the U.S. of working age with a history of incarceration,6 their criminal record is the equivalent of a permanent scarlet letter — a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a job callback by more than 50%.7 The impact of incarceration on employment prospects contributes to high rates of unemployment and economic hardship among what is already a low-income population.8 Those with criminal histories who are unable to find legal employment are more likely to commit another crime and return to prison.910 Lastly, unemployment is both directly and indirectly associated with higher rates of morbidity and mortality.111213

Impact on Families

Exclusion from the workforce impacts more than just those with criminal records. In 2007, 1.7 million minors (2.3% of children under the age of 18) had parents that were incarcerated; and similarly, a majority of inmates report being parents of minors.14 Incarceration has serious impacts on a parents’ ability to contribute to the family income. Somewhere between 40 to over 50% of people with criminal records report no annual income even several years after their incarceration and wage growth is reduced by over 30% among former inmates.1516 Children with parents who are unemployed have poorer performance in schools and these findings are more pronounced in lower income families.17 It is therefore of little surprise that children of parents with a history of incarceration are more likely to commit crimes and become incarcerated themselves. 18 Lack of employment prevents parents who are ex-offenders from providing for their children and puts already disadvantaged youth at a higher risk of negative outcomes.

Disparate Impacts

Hiring discrimination widens socioeconomic disparities in unemployment and income, negatively impacting health outcomes in vulnerable populations.19 Incarceration disproportionately affects minorities, particularly Blacks, with 1 in 6 Black men having been incarcerated since 2001. Furthermore, Black individuals with criminal histories face even harsher stigma and steeper barriers to economic stability as they are 24 percent less likely to be called back for an interview compared to their white counterparts.20 Since over 70% of children with incarcerated parents are children of color, more minority youth experience the negative consequences of ex-offender unemployment, perpetuating socioeconomic disparities into the next generation.21

Bad Hiring Practices are Bad for the Economy

Discriminatory hiring practices have adverse implications for the economy. One study found that in 2008 job discrimination against ex-offenders removed 1.5 to 1.7 million workers from the market leading to a productivity loss of 57 to 65 billion dollars that year.22 Allowing these individuals to work creates increased tax revenue for the government and, if recidivism declines, may actually decrease the cost to taxpayers through reduced prison and legal costs.

Need for Action and “Ban The Box”

Employment discrimination based on criminal histories is an unfair practice that perpetuates income and health inequality. Individuals who are found to have committed crimes are punished through prison sentencing and should not be punished a second time with job discrimination and further economic hardship when they are attempting to return to society. Moreover, a person’s criminal history has little, if any, effect on their ability to perform their job. Lastly, if we believe part of the purpose of the justice system is to serve as rehabilitation, allowing job discrimination against ex-offenders is in direct conflict of this goal. Fortunately, several cities, states and businesses have adopted “ban the box” policies that reduce discriminatory employment practices.

There are number of means to reduce discriminatory hiring, many of which have been adopted by states, cities and businesses. While these policies do not prevent employers from running background checks or considering an applicant’s criminal past before making a decision about hiring, they do give ex-offenders a better chance of getting a job. Many of these policies simply ask employers to delay asking about criminal history, allowing employers to get to know an applicant personally and reducing their chances of dismissing qualified ex-offenders prematurely by 15%.23 Other components of “ban the box” policies include asking applicants only about relevant criminal history, or recent criminal convictions.

By 2014, 13 states, 70 cities and counties and numerous businesses have implemented “ban the box” policies.24 Many of these states and cities extend their anti-discrimination policies to private employers as well. Several places have seen the benefits of “ban the box” policies — which have allowed for more ex-offenders to get jobs and for employees to gain qualified employers. After enacting a “ban the box” policy, the city of Minneapolis actually found their hiring process increased in efficiency while more than half of the applicants in the city with criminal histories were hired.25 Since Durham’s “ban the box” policy took effect in 2011, the city has seen a seven fold increase in the number of people hired with a criminal background.26 The rapid adoption of “ban the box” policies alone is a testament to their success.

Critics of “ban the box” policies typically argue these policies make employers feel unsafe. Employers want to make sure that they are not hiring someone who puts their business, employees, and clients at risk.27 Opponents of “ban the box” claim background checks are the easiest way to quickly determine if someone poses a threat.28 However, background checks are often inaccurate and they are not predictive tools; an individual’s risk of reoffending decreases with each year after their release; and only about 3% of violent crimes in the workplace are committed by current and former employees.293031 fact, there may be more reason to hire someone with a criminal record than without: the federal government and some states run bonding programs (a type of insurance against a bad hire) and provide tax incentives to hire people with criminal records.323334 Lastly, employers tout the benefits of hiring people with criminal records, citing lower turnover and problematic discharge rates.35

Despite the recent success of fair hiring policies there is still much to be done to end hiring discrimination against ex-offenders. 37 states have no policy against hiring discrimination whatsoever. Most states that have “ban the box” policies exclude private employers. Many of the states that extend the policy to private employers make exemptions for small businesses.36  Additionally, the ex-offender population can be challenging to study so little data exists to determine the most successful aspects of “ban the box” policies and to guide the next steps in reducing hiring discrimination.

As members of the public health and health services fields, we should encourage local and state governments to adopt “ban the box” policies as a means of improving the health of vulnerable populations and decreasing health inequities. Our fields should devote greater attention to studying the health consequences of incarceration for individuals with criminal histories and their families. Without our support for fair hiring policies and concerted resources allocated to studying ex-offenders, we will continue to see health disparities widen and communities destroyed by the epidemic of mass incarceration.


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