Young adulthood is a crucial period that can determine a person’s success later in life by setting a trajectory for work experience, education and training, and financial stability. Unfortunately, many previously incarcerated young adults—those ages 18 to 24—face collateral consequences from policies and laws that make it difficult to obtain employment and education even after they are released from incarceration. The federal government has a role to play in enabling successful reentry across the country, but states and localities can pave the way within their own jurisdictions—and many already have.
A previous report by the Center for American Progress offered recommendations to reduce barriers for young adults reentering communities after incarceration, drawing on original analysis and existing research.1 This issue brief builds on those recommendations and highlights promising practices at the state and local levels for improving the economic outcomes of reentering young adults, addressing barriers to reentry, and reducing recidivism:
- Guarantee access to identification upon release.
- Ensure access to a social safety net that provides financial stability and enables employment.
- Adequately fund and structure workforce development programs dedicated to formerly incarcerated young adults.
- Enact employment policies that facilitate fair access to the labor market.
Young adults face long-lasting barriers after incarceration
Over the past decades, policymakers, advocates, and communities have acknowledged research indicating that 18- to 24-year-olds share many developmental characteristics with adolescents, such as lower capacity for self-control and higher susceptibility to peer pressure.2 However, legal reforms geared toward improving post-incarceration outcomes for youth have historically only applied to those younger than 18. This has denied 18- to 24-year-olds access to the policies and programs that have helped decrease juvenile detention rates by 70 percent since 1995.3
Young adults reentering their communities from incarceration face barriers to employment, including lack of proper identification, lack of access to safety net programs, inadequate support to gain work experience and find employment, and restrictive employment laws that can allow discrimination based on prior offense records. These barriers contribute to worse employment outcomes for reentering young adults than for their nonincarcerated peers, even a decade after release. CAP research shows that 1 in 5 young adults cannot find employment within the first year after being released from incarceration, and those who can find a job report working 10 fewer weeks per year than their nonincarcerated peers.4 Additionally, 26 percent of formerly incarcerated young adults reported working zero weeks in the 12th calendar year after their release, compared with only 13 percent of their nonincarcerated peers. Notably, LGBT people are overrepresented in prison, and incarcerated young adults are more likely to report a disability than the general population.5
State and local policies to improve employment outcomes for reentering young adults
Increasing access to photo ID upon release from incarceration
Without a valid form of identification, reentering young adults can struggle to secure critical resources such as housing, public benefits, employment, and banking access.6 As noted in previous CAP research, institutional IDs, such as those issued in Montana, are used to confirm individuals’ identities in the carceral system and therefore should be sufficient to verify an individual’s identity for the purposes of issuing a state ID.7 Despite the importance of IDs, approximately 30 U.S. states lack laws that help formerly incarcerated people obtain an ID.8 Additionally, the degree of assistance that the remaining 20 states provide varies drastically, from providing Social Security cards and birth certificates to temporarily suspending unpaid court costs as long as the individual continues to make their repayment plan payment.
States can work with their justice systems to increase reentering individuals’ access to ID
- In 2007, Wisconsin became one of the earliest states to statutorily require its Department of Corrections to determine if an incarcerated person has a driver’s license or state ID and to assist those nearing release with applying for a state ID if they lack one.9 If the person lacks funds in their general account to acquire an ID, the department covers the necessary portion of the fee to ensure that they can obtain it.
- States including Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, and Wyoming provide assistance with obtaining driver’s licenses; this can help individuals expand their job opportunities by allowing them to apply for roles that require a driver’s license.10
- West Virginia passed S.B. 634 in 2016, which allows the Division of Justice and Community Services director to coordinate with the commissioner of the Division of Motor Vehicles and administer a repayment program for unpaid court costs and place a stay on a person’s license suspension or revocation, effectively allowing individuals to apply for an ID card.11 However, this does not provide individuals assistance with obtaining the necessary documents, such as a Social Security card or proof of residency, to receive an ID; they may therefore struggle with the administrative burdens of obtaining these on their own.
- States including Arizona, California, Illinois, Montana, Ohio, Utah, and Wisconsin allow reentering individuals to use their correctional documents to obtain a form of state ID.12
In order for states to increase access to identification, they should issue permanent IDs for people reentering communities after incarceration, count institutional IDs as identity verification documents, and eliminate the costs of obtaining identification.
Increasing access to a social safety net to provide financial stability and support employment
Financial stability is vital to all people reentering their communities, many of whom experience food and housing insecurity, financial hardships, and trouble accessing health care.13 These challenges are particularly poignant for young adults, who often do not have the previous work experience or education needed to immediately begin earning income upon release. Unfortunately, many of these young adults also face barriers to accessing public benefits and programs that research shows can improve employment outcomes and reduce recidivism rates.14 State and local governments should consider programmatic and legislative changes that ensure young adults can meet their basic needs upon release as they transition toward stability and obtain a quality job or education.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—an assistance program whose funds can be used for a variety of services including child care and employment—and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provide critical resources for families and individuals.15 These programs are especially important for formerly incarcerated individuals, who were almost twice as likely than the general population to face food insecurity in 2019.16 But in 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—signed into law as part of the war on drugs campaign—banned anyone who had a prior drug conviction from receiving SNAP or TANF benefits, with the option for states to modify or fully opt out of its bans.17 A study by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation found that from 1997 to 2015, almost 527,000 people nationwide missed out on gaining benefits due to full bans on TANF and SNAP.18
This number would likely have been higher had the analysis included states with partial bans. Since 1996, various states have modified their own criteria to ban from TANF and SNAP—for example, individuals who have multiple convictions, are convicted of distribution, or fail parole compliance—helping to reduce the amount of people affected. Notably, other states have fully lifted their bans since 1996. States should fully lift all TANF and SNAP bans to ensure young adults do not continue to be punished after release and are able to rebuild their lives.
Removing SNAP and TANF bans can help reentering individuals meet their basic needs
- 26 states, including Alabama, and Virginia, have fully lifted TANF bans.
- 17 states, including Iowa and Maryland, have modified their TANF bans.
- Seven states, including Arizona and South Carolina, still maintain a TANF ban.
- 28 states, including Pennsylvania and Oregon, have fully lifted SNAP bans.
- 20 states, including North Carolina and Indiana, have modified their SNAP bans.
- South Carolina remains the only state to maintain a SNAP ban.19
What’s more, research has shown that formerly incarcerated people experience a higher risk of adverse health outcomes and death from preexisting chronic conditions than the general population and are cut off from access to lifesaving care due to a lack of health insurance.20 Medicaid coverage can help high-risk reentrants gain access to health care. Since its inception, Medicaid has generally prohibited coverage for the duration of an individual’s incarceration, requiring them to reapply after release.21 In the absence of federal legislative action, some states have enacted policies to instead suspend Medicaid eligibility during incarceration and created processes to facilitate reinstatement prior to release.22 In doing so, states have lessened the administrative burden of applying for Medicaid, provided access to necessary health services for reentering individuals, and strengthened the reentry support system.
States can help reentering young adults by ensuring access to Medicaid upon release
Suspending Medicaid coverage instead of terminating coverage has been shown to reduce recidivism rates within the first year by 2.91 percentage points and 4.58 percentage points in the third year.23
- 42 states have suspended Medicaid eligibility for individuals incarcerated in jails.24
- 43 states have suspended Medicaid eligibility for individuals incarcerated in prisons.25
- 23 states have created automatic data exchange processes to help reinstate Medicaid coverage.26
- In 2023, California became the first state to provide some Medicaid benefits to incarcerated individuals 90 days prior to release. At least 14 other states are planning to offer similar coverage.27
California has gone further in eliminating barriers to Medicaid for reentrants. In January 2023, it became the first state to receive approval from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under a Section 1115 waiver,28 allowing Medicaid coverage for a limited package of reentry services for eligible individuals to begin 90 days before release. Services covered include case management and community health worker services, substance abuse disorder treatment, physical and behavioral consultations, and more. Young adults in California can be connected to providers and receive care ahead of release, thus easing transitions out of incarceration. State governments should at least provide access to health services upon release or earlier to support young adults in safely transitioning back to their communities.
Access to assistance programs for reentering young adults at the point of release, or as soon as possible after release, is crucial to ensuring that every person receives the support they need. States should have dedicated staff to help incarcerated people and reentering young adults apply for these resources. For example, the Illinois Reentry Program helps individuals navigate and gain access to other mental health and housing benefits within the state.29 The state also provides food assistance by instructing its Department of Corrections, in conjunction with the Department of Human Services, to assist incarcerated individuals with their SNAP applications prior to release.30 The Department of Corrections is able to submit pre-release SNAP applications, and its staff are instructed to help individuals with their SNAP applications within 10 days of their release. Additionally, the Department of Human Services conducts phone interviews after applications are submitted and certifies the application upon release. This process makes funds available to eligible individuals within two business days after the application is certified.
Effective policy decisions need to provide holistic support for young people at all stages of their justice involvement to foster their ambitions and build stronger, safer communities.
To create a supportive system for young adults, it is important that means-tested programs, such as SNAP, fully disregard temporary work income received from training or certification programs. Reducing—or worse, denying—the public benefits individuals are eligible to receive based on income from training programs can disincentivize them from completing the programs and creates a benefits cliff that can be hard or impossible to overcome. Income earned during trainings, such as those carried out through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, is key to supporting young adults who also rely on safety net programs to become more independent and cover their basic needs.31 Training programs also increase reentering individuals’ likelihood of finding employment upon release and lower recidivism rates by 43 percent.32
While only the federal government can disregard income earned during training when evaluating SNAP eligibility, some states have moved to disregard a portion of earned income when determining TANF eligibility.33 For example, in 2013, Vermont increased the amount of income it disregards to $250 and 25 percent of remaining earnings.34 Maine and Massachusetts both disregard 100 percent of a person’s earned income for the first six months of work.35 And New York currently has a proposed bill that would disregard 100 percent of all income earned within the first six months of first being employed, as long as the individual has completed or left a qualified job training program.36
Investing in workforce development programs dedicated to reentering young adults
As discussed in the previous CAP report, formerly incarcerated young adults face significant, age-specific barriers that prevent them from being qualified and supported for available employment opportunities.37 While older individuals may have pre-incarceration work experience or training to return to or build on, many in their early- or mid-20s may have been incarcerated during years when they would otherwise have reached educational milestones or attained early work experience. For example, 25 percent of formerly incarcerated people older than 24 did not complete high school or obtain a GED certificate, compared with only 13 percent of their nonincarcerated counterparts.38 Moreover, research has shown that vocational and educational training can lower recidivism rates by 43 percent and can increase a person’s chance of employment by 30 percent.39 By introducing workforce development opportunities at all stages of justice involvement and collaborating with local organizations, businesses, and federal agencies, states can help meet the gap in education and workplace training that incarcerated young adults often experience.
States can increase employment training and opportunities
- Iowa has attempted to bridge the divide by leveraging state resources and building connections with community businesses. Iowa Workforce Development collaborates with the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) to offer certification courses, apprenticeships, and interactions with prospective employers for in-demand jobs such as welding, computer support, and electrician positions.40 The Iowa DOC provides job search support once individuals are out of correctional facilities to ensure they can meet any remaining apprenticeship hours needed. Employers are also invited to roundtable events that highlight companies’ experiences with hiring reentering residents or visit carceral facilities to view the work of work of apprentices; on average, 50 to 70 companies attend these events. Iowa Central Community College, which is close to the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, also worked with the Iowa DOC to become the only school in the state to offer Second Chance Pell Grants in order to give financial aid and coursework to individuals in six of the nine state correctional facilities. This course flexibility, employment support, and community engagement can help youth reenter their communities with a new set of skills and tangible accreditations that will support their employment prospects, regardless of whether or not they had time to complete the full apprenticeship in detention.
- Washington state took a hybrid approach to addressing workforce and education gaps by implementing a state and local cooperative agency known as My Journey Out Beyond (MyJOB).41 The curriculum expands upon the education programs in several Washington state juvenile facilities by offering hands-on training and learning supplemented by mentoring. The Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council oversees, and works in addition to, the MyJOB curriculum by supporting short-term occupational training programs and offering transition services such as helping youth develop reintegration plans.
- San Diego County, California, developed a partnership with community-based organizations that can connect youth with justice involvement to workforce systems in their local area.42 It offers local supportive services in nearly all points of justice involvement, including during detention and post-release. For more than 10 years, this partnership helped “88%-96% of youth served successfully [meet] service plan goals and [remain] arrest-free at 6-month follow-up.” This all-points approach to assistance provides youth with more time to access and benefit from a variety of resources such as career exploration and training, mental health services, and internships.
Reforming employment policies to facilitate access to the labor force
Even if young people have gained access to identification, safety net programs, and workforce training, restrictive employment laws may limit their access to work due to their criminal record. While Congress must pass federal legislation to ensure young adults are not unduly burdened for offenses for which they already served time, it is also crucial that state governments enact laws that provide a fair chance at employment.43
For example, California’s Proposition 47 created a mechanism to expunge young adults’ records if they meet certain requirements.44 Similarly, bills such as H.B. 22 in Maryland prohibit certain departments that issue occupational licenses or certificates from denying applications based on offenses seven years or older.45 States should enact—and some already have—automatic record clearance laws so that young adults with state offense records can rebuild their lives.46
Measures such as “ban the box” that prohibit employers from considering job applicants’ offense records were first championed by the national civil rights organization All of Us or None in 2004.47 Since then, at least 37 states and 150 localities have adopted this measure.48 Additionally, 15 of those states have extended their fair chance laws to the private employment sector, which is crucial for ensuring young people have a better chance at finding employment in the majority of jobs. On the federal side, the Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act of 2019 has also extended the federal government’s fair chance hiring policy to its contractors.49
Localities within the aforementioned 15 states have also enacted measures that go beyond state law. San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., have established fair hiring laws that build on the work of states by striving to uphold the civil rights, human rights, or labor standards of their local communities.50 Although these local laws vary and can apply at various stages of the job hiring process, they all share common themes:
- Engage community stakeholders, government agencies, and law enforcement before legislation is passed.
- Conduct strong employer outreach, disseminating information to marginalized job seekers and utilizing community resources early in the laws’ release.
- Ensure strong implementation by developing formal rule interpretations within the first year of implementation, tracking complaints, documenting compliance, and engaging in strategic investigations.
State and local governments can ensure access to identification, social safety net reforms, and effective and well-funded workforce development, as well as can enact employment policies that remove barriers for reentering young adults to access the labor market. Effective policy decisions need to provide holistic support for young people at all stages of their justice involvement to foster their ambitions and build stronger, safer communities.