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Center for American Progress

Fact Sheet: Addressing Employment Barriers for Young Adults Leaving Incarceration
Fact Sheet

Fact Sheet: Addressing Employment Barriers for Young Adults Leaving Incarceration

Many young adults re-entering communities after incarceration face institutional barriers to reaching their employment goals—and policymakers can and should take action to help them.

Person in uniform in foreground holding fire hose
Cadets, who were formerly incarcerated, load a fire hose onto a firetruck at the Ventura Training Center during an open-house demonstration for media and prospective participants, July 14, 2022, in Camarillo, California. (Getty/Mario Tama)

Young adulthood is a critical period in which people build the foundation for future success through receiving education, building work experience, establishing financial security, and more. But for the nearly 96,000 young adults ages 18 to 24 incarcerated in the United States’ federal, state, and local prisons, these goals are often out of reach even after release.1

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Despite the willingness of reentering young people to work hard to achieve their goals, they face numerous obstacles, including difficulties accessing safe and stable housing; completing education or training; finding quality economic opportunities in their communities; and gaining access to the health care, child care, and transportation that would enable them to work. As a result, reentering young people are unable to access self-sustaining, dignified work that yields dividends for themselves, their families, and their communities.

Read the new CAP report

A new Center for American Progress report, released in conjunction with this fact sheet, leverages original analysis, confidential focus groups, and research to develop recommendations on how to increase access to identification, social safety net programs, and workforce development opportunities, as well as reform employment policies, for reentering young adults in order to reduce recidivism and increase their ability to keep and retain jobs.

Statistics shed light on the U.S. population of incarcerated young adults

Criminal legal policy largely treats 18- to 24-year-olds as adults, despite the fact that research demonstrates that they share many developmental characteristics with adolescents, including greater risk-seeking behaviors, greater susceptibility to peer pressure, and a diminished capacity to engage in self-control.2

40%

of the 8.1% of 18- to 24-year-olds in state and federal prisons in 2020 were Black young men;

In 2016, more than half of 18- to 24-year-olds in state and federal prisons had not finished high school, while another 40 percent had graduated high school or earned a GED diploma but never attended college. Fifteen percent had been homeless at some point in their childhood, and many were parents of at least one child.3

24%

were Hispanic young men

The criminal legal system is further characterized by alarming racial disparities. For every 100,000 18- to 24-year-old Black men in the United States, 1,828 were incarcerated in 2020, compared with just 218 white men of the same age. Hispanic and Native American men in this age group are similarly overrepresented in American prisons. In 2020, of the 8.1 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in state and federal prisons, 40 percent were Black young men and 24 percent were Hispanic young men.4

For many young people of color, the cycle of interactions with the criminal legal system originates in school settings.5 LGBT people6—as well as disabled people and people with mental health symptoms—are also overrepresented in prisons.7

Barriers to successful employment upon reentry

All young adults, once released, face many barriers to finding and keeping a job, including:

  • A lack of proper identification that restricts them from accessing the public benefits, services, and work opportunities they need to stabilize their lives.
  • Financial instability and a lack of access to child care, transportation, and other employment-enabling supports, which hinder their ability to participate in education, workforce training, and the workforce itself.
  • A lack of education, training, and work experience that makes it challenging to access high-quality jobs with good pay and benefits.
  • Employment and regulatory practices that block individuals with records from job opportunities and the licensures or certifications needed for employment.

Policy recommendations

To ensure that young people reentering communities can build full lives, policymakers at all levels of government should take a multipronged approach to ensure access to vital resources, services, and employment opportunities. They must ensure reentering young people have access to existing social safety net programs that lead to financial stability and support employment goals; they should also adequately fund and intentionally structure the workforce development programs dedicated to giving these young people opportunities. Essentially, legislators must work to create policies that facilitate access to the labor market after incarceration. Four recommendations would help them meet these goals:

  • Guarantee that people have access to identification upon their release from incarceration.
  • Ensure reentering individuals have access to a social safety net that provides financial stability and enables employment.
  • Adequately fund and structure workforce development programs dedicated to helping reentering young adults rebuild their lives.
  • Enact employment policies that facilitate fair access to the labor market, such as legislation that supports automatic record clearance measures.
Read the report

Successful reentry means safer communities, stronger societies, and equitable economic growth in the long term. Federal and state governments must help reentering young adults build financial security, enter the labor market, care for their families’ needs, and save for their dreams and goals.

Endnotes

  1. Authors’ calculations based on E. Anne Carson, “Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables” (Washington: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2021), table 10, available at https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/p20st.pdf.
  2. Fair and Just Prosecution, “Young Adults in the Justice System” (New York: 2019), available at https://www.fairandjustprosecution.org/staging/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/FJP_Brief_YoungAdults.pdf.
  3. Authors’ calculations based on Lauren G. Beatty and Tracy L. Snell, “Survey of Prison Inmates, United States, 2016” (Washington: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2021), available at https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/ppi16.pdf.
  4. Authors’ calculations based on Carson, “Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables,” tables 10 and 11.
  5. Calyssa Lawyer, “Closing the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” Center for American Progress, August 15, 2011, available at https://www.americanprogress.org/article/closing-the-school-to-prison-pipeline/; Levi Pulkkinen, “When typical middle school antics mean suspensions, handcuffs, or jail,” The Hechinger Report, April 8, 2021, available at https://hechingerreport.org/when-typical-middle-school-antics-mean-suspensions-handcuffs-or-jail/.
  6. Center for American Progress and Movement Advancement Project, “Unjust: How the Broken Criminal Justice System Fails LGBT People of Color” (Washington and Denver: 2016), available at https://www.lgbtmap.org/file/lgbt-criminal-justice-poc.pdf.
  7. Laura M. Maruschak, “Disabilities Reported by Prisoners: Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016” (Washington: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2021), available at https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/drpspi16st.pdf; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Disability Impacts All of Us,” October 28, 2022, available at https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/infographic-disability-impacts-all.html.

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Authors

Marina Zhavoronkova

Former Senior Fellow

Allie Preston

Senior Policy Analyst, Criminal Justice Reform

Justin Schweitzer

Former Policy Analyst

Akua Amaning

Director, Criminal Justice Reform

Arohi Pathak

Former Director, Policy

Team

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