Improving Employment Outcomes for People with Criminal Records

Life in prison is hard—and it’s designed to be that way. But for the 70 million Americans with a criminal record living outside prison walls, life in the community also can be pretty tough. In addition to finding stable housing, reuniting with families and addressing substance abuse issues, individuals with criminal records often face serious barriers to finding a job.

“As we know, getting a job with a criminal record is hard,” said Stephanie Akhter, reentry and employment project manager at the CSG Justice Center, during a session on improving employment outcomes for people with criminal records at the 2015 CSG National Conference. “That’s particularly true for people of color, who are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.”

But according to leaders in the corrections field, such as Tennessee Commissioner of Corrections Derrick Schofield, securing a job is one of the most beneficial things an offender can do to increase the likelihood of maintaining a crime-free lifestyle. 

“In Tennessee, we have about 80,000 on community corrections, probation or parole supervision—that’s a lot,” said Schofield. “Some are employed, some are not. We know there are some things that help them not to reoffend, including work.”

The benefits of providing jobs to this population aren’t limited to offenders, either. According to some estimates, the economic costs associated with unemployment among those with criminal records range between $57 and $65 billion in lost output each year. 

That’s why the CSG Justice Center is leading a national effort to open new doors to employment opportunities for individuals who are or have been engaged in the criminal justice system. In June 2014, the CSG Justice Center convened business executives and federal and state government officials at the White House to discuss how the public and private sectors can partner to improve employment for people with criminal records. Since then, at least 10 community-level dialogues have been held across the country to help facilitate discussions between corrections agencies, state and local governments, and the business community.

In Tennessee, partnerships between the state’s Department of Corrections and industries are already having a positive effect. Tennessee provides critical programming both within prisons and through community supervision programs to help offenders build the job skills needed for life after incarceration. In addition, individuals may also receive on-the-job training provided by businesses such as Tennessee-based Barnhart Crane and Rigging, which partners with the Department of Corrections to offer Economic Opportunity classes to those with a criminal record. For those who graduate from the six-week program, nearly all go on to find employment and only 2 to 4 percent reoffend. 

In part due to the public-private dialogues the CSG Justice Center is leading across the country, more and more businesses are learning that employing those with criminal records isn’t solely an act of kindness, but also makes good business sense. Bed Bath & Beyond, Home Depot, Target and Walmart are among major corporations that have offender-hiring efforts and some of these businesses are collecting data to demonstrate the benefits of these programs. 

Increasingly, said CSG Executive Director and CEO David Adkins, “employers are turning to offenders as a reliable source of employment.” 

New state laws also are helping remove some of the barriers to employment for those with criminal records. Connecticut and Oregon are among states that have passed fair-chance laws, also known as ban-the-box laws, which prohibit job application requirements to disclose criminal history. Under these laws, employers can still consider an applicant’s criminal record as part of the hiring process, said Madeline Neighly of the CSG Justice Center; they just can’t write those with criminal backgrounds off at the start.

Neighly said policy efforts like these are giving the 70 million Americans with a criminal record a chance to succeed in the community, because they’ve already paid their debts to society. “Is every sentence a life sentence?” she said. 

For Schofield, the reason to improve employment opportunities for people with criminal records boils down to a simple truth. “It’s about fairness,” he said. “It’s about restoration of rights and turning people into tax payers, not tax takers.”