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Employment, Income Low for People with Prior Convictions

A man shaking hands with another man in an office.

​Individuals convicted of a felony often have trouble reintegrating into society.

They struggle to find housing, re-enter the workforce and financially support their families. Several recent reports have examined the impact an arrest or criminal conviction has on a person's employment or earnings.

Research organization RAND Corp. released a study in February examining more than 9,000 people from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which follows a group of Americans throughout their lives.

More than half of unemployed men in their 30s had been arrested or convicted of a crime, the results showed. By age 35, about 64 percent of unemployed men had been arrested and 46 percent had been convicted of a crime.

The arrest prevalence for Black men was 33 percent higher than it was for white men. An arrest record combined with racial discrimination makes securing employment particularly difficult for men of color, the report surmised.

"I knew that people with criminal history records have trouble finding jobs, but I had never really considered whether having a criminal history record was a common problem among those who were unemployed," said Shawn Bushway, the study's lead author and a senior policy researcher at RAND. "These results suggest that criminal history records represent another significant barrier for those who are unemployed."

Income Is Also Affected

People convicted of crimes don't only have trouble finding employment. Once they land a job, their earnings pale in comparison to their peers, according to researchers at the University of Michigan and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Their study, published in September 2021, assessed how individuals convicted of a felony or released from prison have fared in the labor market since the Great Recession.

Using tax data from the IRS, researchers found that the employment outcomes and earnings of these individuals were much lower than those of their peers who did not complete high school and did not have similar criminal histories.

From 2006 to 2018, the average annual income was about $7,000 less for people with a felony conviction and about $10,000 less for individuals released from prison when compared with their peers without a record.

"There is a huge gap in earnings and income, and that is consistent with a larger body of research about the causal impact of criminal histories on getting a job interview request or securing stable employment," said Mike Mueller-Smith, co-author of the study.

SHRM Resource Hub Page
Overcoming Workplace Bias

Employers Are Becoming More Accepting … Or Are They?

Many employers struggling to hire talent fail to give people with prior convictions a chance. Being a truly diverse organization requires an acceptance of people of all backgrounds—including this untapped pool of workers who are eager to get back to work.

In 2019, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Foundation and Koch Industries launched Getting Talent Back to Work, an initiative encouraging individuals and their organizations to pledge that they will give opportunities to qualified job applicants with criminal backgrounds.

In 2021, SHRM released a Getting Talent Back to Work report showing that most HR professionals and business leaders are willing to hire and work with people with criminal records. However, the percentage of companies that actually hire people with criminal records is much lower, according to a SHRM Online interview with Richard Bronson, founder and CEO of 70MillionJobs, an employment marketplace and platform for people with criminal backgrounds.

People without a criminal record are much more likely to receive a callback from an employer despite those with prior convictions having a much longer tenure and being less likely to quit their jobs, according to a 2018 study.

"If employers are looking to hire someone, restricting hiring to those without a [criminal] record will restrict the labor pool considerably," Bushway said.

The RAND study suggested that employers should reconsider their views of the risks posed by applicants with criminal records. Leveraging innovative, new prediction models that seek to understand the risks of recidivism among people who apply for jobs could effectively assess job applicants with a criminal history.

Bushway urged employers not to be intimidated by the threat of negligent-hiring lawsuits, which can prompt employers to avoid job applicants with criminal records. In making a negligent-hiring claim, the harmed individual argues that the employer knew or should have known their worker's potential risk to harm someone before hiring that worker.

"I would argue that in many situations, employers could not have known [the person would harm someone], even if the person has a record," Bushway said. "Researchers have documented that this kind of lawsuit is predicated on a fallacy known as post-hoc bias, where people retrospectively imbue causality to events where none exists—in this case, ignoring all the people with prior records who don't go on to commit a bad crime on the job."

The threat of these lawsuits restricts these applicants from getting jobs, including individuals who are at low risk for recommitting a crime. Bushway said employers are missing out on qualified, hardworking applicants to avoid an issue that is uncommon and difficult to predict.

"The kinds of problems you're trying to prevent … are very rare," Bushway said. "Companies don't bear the cost of a false positive, which is a person who would be a good employee but can't get hired—society does."

Employment greatly reduces recidivism. Prison to Employment Connection, an organization that fights for the rights of individuals who were formerly incarcerated, found that people who maintained employment for one year after being released from prison had only a 16 percent recidivism rate over three years as compared with a 52 percent recidivism rate for those who did not maintain employment.

In 2018, Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of SHRM, explained how companies can do their part to help reduce recidivism.



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