Center for American Progress

How To Improve Employment Outcomes for Young Adults Leaving Incarceration

How To Improve Employment Outcomes for Young Adults Leaving Incarceration

Young adults reentering communities after incarceration face many barriers to finding stable work, but forward-thinking policies can lead to better employment outcomes and safer communities.

In this article
A reentry mentee works at an auto repair shop at the Louisiana State Penitentiary on October 14, 2013. (Getty/Giles Clarke)

Introduction and summary

In 2020, the United States incarcerated nearly 96,000 young adults from the ages of 18 to 24.1 These are critical—and ought to be exciting—years in a person’s life. In the process of developing this report, the authors conducted a focus group with several previously incarcerated young adults, who shared goals for the future—both familiar and ambitious—such as finding a steady job in the technology field, being a good parent, making enough money to own a home, or creating a network to bring artists together.2

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Yet despite their willingness to work hard to achieve their goals, these young people faced numerous obstacles to a stable, safe, and self-sufficient life upon reentering society. Many young adults leaving incarceration are disconnected from work and school, and they are likely to encounter challenges when applying for work due to their arrest record or lack of education or employment experience. Due to their immediate need for financial stability, they are also likely to take low-wage jobs that do not offer opportunity for advancement. Some young people have a difficult time transitioning back to a school or training setting. Others may not have access to health care or public benefits that support food, housing, and child care, which they need to ultimately return to school or take a job.

Design of the focus groups

To learn about the problems and solutions affecting young people reentering communities after incarceration, the authors studied existing research and conducted interviews with reentry experts, including leaders of reentry programs, corrections leaders and staff, researchers, and others. The authors also conducted several focus groups to learn directly from affected young adults and from corrections staff who work with affected young people.

CAP developed a focus group with affected youth in collaboration with the Center for Employment Opportunities, a nonprofit that works to reduce recidivism and increase employment by providing people returning from prison immediate paid employment skills training, ongoing career support, and wraparound vocational support services. It was conducted virtually in June 2022. CAP also partnered with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Corrections Council to develop and execute two virtually conducted focus groups of corrections staff who work with affected youth before and after release. These focus groups took place in November 2022 and were also conducted virtually. The SEIU Corrections Council is made up of corrections members and staff from local SEIU chapters across the country. The insights and firsthand experiences of the focus group participants provided background information that informed this report’s analysis and recommendations.

The focus groups helped the authors identify a variety of areas for intervention, four of which are discussed at length in the following sections. While this report does not discuss all critical areas where reform is needed—such as mental, behavioral, and physical health;3 in-prison education;4 housing; or transportation5—the recommendations below highlight issues that are the subject of ongoing research and policy development.

As a result of reentry barriers, reentering young adults’ goals are often left unrealized, and they are unable to access self-sustaining, dignified work that yields dividends for individuals, communities, and the U.S. economy. CAP analysis of the latest available data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth found that 20 percent of reentering young people born between 1980 and 1984 were unemployed in the first year following their release; in the 12th full year after release, that number grew to 26 percent. According to further analysis of these data, young adults with criminal legal histories worked an average of only 35.8 weeks in the first full year after their release. People born in the same time period who had never been incarcerated or arrested worked almost 10 weeks longer—45.7 weeks, on average—in the first year after turning 23. (see Figure 4)

Read the fact sheet

This report proposes four recommendations to support young adults aged 18-24 reentering communities and seeking employment after incarceration:

  1. Guarantee access to identification upon release.
  2. Ensure access to a social safety net that provides financial stability and enables employment.
  3. Adequately fund and structure workforce development programs dedicated to formerly incarcerated young adults.
  4. Enact employment policies that facilitate fair access to the labor market.

These recommendations are guided by the universal needs of young people rather than the mandate of a specific agency or law. As a result, enacting them will require a variety of legislative and administrative actions, as well as holistic, coordinated systems that collaborate to facilitate positive reentry outcomes in society.

An overview of the demographics of incarcerated young adults

In recent decades, policymakers, advocates, and communities have partnered to decrease youth incarceration across the United States. Youth incarceration decreased by 70 percent from 1995 to 2019,6 although troubling racial disparities continue to exist, particularly among Black and Native American youth.7 This drop in incarceration resulted partly from a greater understanding of developmental science, which suggests that young people are less culpable for crimes and more likely to be rehabilitated than older individuals. Developmental research demonstrates that 18- to 24-year-olds share many developmental characteristics associated with lesser culpability among adolescents, including greater risk-seeking behaviors, greater susceptibility to peer pressure, and a diminished capacity to engage in self-control.8 This research provides context for understanding well-established trends within the field of criminology that suggest that criminal behavior reaches its peak during young adult years.9 The peak age for all crimes except gambling in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report is less than 25.10 As a result, young people have long faced disproportionately high rates of arrest and incarceration.

Despite the developmental similarities between youth and young adults, legal reforms based on developmental science have historically been applied only to people 18 and younger incarcerated in the juvenile rather than the adult justice system. As a result, incarceration of 18- to 24-year-olds remains high. Indeed, this age group accounts for a disproportionate number of arrests. Moreover, incarcerated 18- to 24-year-olds are more likely to be people of color than are incarcerated people in older age groups.11

For every 100,000 18- to 24-year-old men in the United States in 2020, 592 were incarcerated.12 But young men of color are overrepresented in prison, both compared with other young men in prison and with those in their own age, gender, and racial groups in the U.S. population overall. In 2020, 8.1 percent of the state and federal prison population was made up of young people aged 18-24.13 Of those people, almost two-thirds were Black (40 percent) or Hispanic (24 percent) young men.14 For every 100,000 18- to 24-year-old Black men in the United States, 1,828 were in prison in 2020, compared with 218 18- to 24-year-old white men. (see Figure 1) Young men who are Hispanic, Native American, or two or more or other races are similarly overrepresented in American prisons.

Figure 1

For many young people, the cycle of interactions with the criminal legal system originates in the school-to-prison pipeline.15 In recent years, the increase in police presence in schools coupled with harsh zero-tolerance policies has shifted discipline from schools to the criminal legal system.16 In the 2017–2018 period, 8.3 out of every 1,000 Black students were referred to law enforcement, while 7.4 out of every 1,000 Native American students were referred to law enforcement; for white students, it was 3.5.17

About 5 in 6 people—83 percent—in state or federal prisons in 2016 reported that their first arrest occurred at age 24 or younger, while more than half—54 percent—said their first arrest occurred before the age of 18.18 People of color are particularly likely to have been arrested as children: 64 percent of Black, 48 percent of Hispanic, and 60 percent of Native American people in state or federal prisons said their first arrest came before they turned 18, compared with 46 percent of white people. (see Figure 2)

Figure 2

LGBT people are also overrepresented in prisons, although exact statistics on sexual orientation and gender identity are difficult to find, often due to underreporting. According to one survey, about 20 percent of youth in juvenile detention and correctional facilities identified as LGBT or gender-nonconforming, compared with about 7 percent to 9 percent of the youth population that identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer as a whole.19 Other research has shown that 7.9 percent of adults in jails and prisons were nonheterosexual, defined as being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or another sexual orientation, compared with 3.4 percent of the total adult population who identified as LGBT.20 In the 2008–2009 period, 16 percent of transgender Americans said they had been incarcerated at some point in their life.21

Incarcerated young people were also more likely than the general population to be disabled. Among 18- to 24-year-olds incarcerated in state prisons, 34.6 percent reported a disability, compared with 26 percent of all American adults.22 About 43 percent of people in state prisons aged 18-24 reported a history of mental health symptoms, and 33 percent reported a history of a chronic health condition such as high blood pressure, asthma, or diabetes.23

Systemic injustices lead to disparities in incarceration

Disparities among the incarcerated population are the result of intentional efforts to surveil and criminalize people of color and those with other marginalized identities, rather than increased criminal activity among overrepresented groups. As mentioned previously, school discipline practices drive young people into the criminal legal system. Black students are overrepresented in student-related arrests, and they are more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.24 Disabled students also face disproportionately high rates of suspension and expulsion and are four times more likely to be arrested at school than their nondisabled peers.25

The proliferation of so-called tough-on-crime policies that began in the 1990s has led to communities of color and low-income communities in particular being targets of oversurveillance and overpolicing practices.26 As a result, young people from communities of color and low-income communities are more likely to have police encounters and be arrested or incarcerated, even for minor offenses. Additionally, many studies have demonstrated that people of color—particularly Black people—are more likely to be perceived as dangerous and therefore to receive harsher penalties than their white counterparts.27

The overrepresentation of disabled people and people with mental health symptoms in the criminal legal system is in large part due to the failure of the government to provide resources and services for disabled people in the community.28 The criminalization of LGBTQ+ identities and the high rates of poverty and homelessness among young people in this population have led to disproportionate rates of incarceration.29

Many young people who face incarceration also face a variety of other challenges, including limited education, lack of housing, or parenting responsibilities. In 2016, for example, 54 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in state and federal prisons did not finish high school, and another 40 percent had graduated high school or gotten a GED diploma but had never attended college. Meanwhile, 15 percent of incarcerated young adults were homeless at some point in their childhood. Many were also parents themselves: In 2016, 41 percent of state and federal inmates aged 18 to 24 were parents of at least one child.30

In focus groups, affected young people—particularly those with families to support—reflected on compounding and rotating feelings of stress and desperation upon their release, including wanting to provide for others and be self-sufficient but not knowing how to do so. They also discussed not having the time or safety net to make long-term investments in their own health, education, or financial stability in the face of immediate needs.31 One participant noted, “When you are incarcerated at a young age, coming out [reentering] isn’t cheap … you [have] kids and coming out people don’t want to hire you, you have to find a place to live, you need therapy, and you have a family to provide for.”

Young people face significant barriers to finding and keeping a job after release

Young people reentering their communities and seeking employment after incarceration may face both readiness barriers, which prevent them from being qualified and supported for available employment opportunities, and access barriers, which limit the number and types of jobs available to them.

Readiness barriers

Readiness barriers include lack of education, training, and work experience; lack of proper identification and documents; and lack of financial stability and access to the social safety net.

Lack of education, training, and work experience make accessing employment difficult

Many reentering young people have not had the opportunity to attain the education or training typically required for employment. According to the most recent available survey of prison inmates from 2016, younger people incarcerated in state or federal prisons were less educated than their older counterparts: 54 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds had not completed high school or its equivalent, compared with 45 percent of those 25 or older. Just 13 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in the entire U.S. population had not completed high school or an equivalent.32 (see Figure 3) This contrasts starkly with the requirements of the labor market, where 78.3 percent of jobs in 2021 required a high school diploma or above.33 In 2021, 39.8 percent of jobs required some level of postsecondary education, but according to 2016 data—the latest available—only 6 percent of incarcerated young people had completed any college, let alone graduated, compared with 56 percent of the general population aged 18 to 24.34 This means that many young people reentering communities are unable to find higher-wage employment.

Figure 3

However, young people were most likely among all age groups to participate in educational training while in prison, such as a GED or vocational training program. In 2003, 58 percent of young people had participated in such a program since their admission to prison, signaling a strong interest in pursuing education and ultimately employment goals.35 In CAP focus groups, reentrants reflected that they and others of their age group were very interested in pursuing education and workforce development opportunities, particularly vocational training, but said demand sharply exceeded supply and led to them being placed on multiyear waitlists. Similarly, corrections staff emphasized the successes of students who participated in skills training programs prior to release but highlighted the need to ensure these programs led to recognized certifications and connected directly to employers.36

As a function of their age, young people are also generally less likely to have work experience, and young people with criminal histories are at an even greater disadvantage. Research on pre-incarceration employment across all ages shows that in the two years prior to incarceration, 58 percent of individuals had essentially zero earnings; this number increased to 80 percent in the year prior to incarceration, likely connected to participation in criminal activity and its consequences, such as trial and sentencing.37

Following release, the impact of incarceration on employment and earnings—especially for people incarcerated at a younger age—is both significant and prolonged, often lasting for much of the rest of their working lives. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth profiled Americans born from 1980 to 1984. The authors used this data set to compare the long-term employment and income outcomes of young adults who have never been incarcerated with those of young adults with a history of incarceration, reviewing outcomes by race and ethnicity. The analysis found that a person born from 1980 to 1984 who has never been incarcerated or arrested worked an average of 45.7 weeks in the first full year after turning 23, while an individual with a criminal legal history worked an average of just 35.8 weeks in the first full year after they were released. As shown in Figure 4, the disparity was even larger for Black, Hispanic, or mixed-race (non-Hispanic) people. It also endured for more than a decade: Formerly incarcerated youth in their 12th full year since release were still only working an average of 44.1 weeks; those who had never been arrested or incarcerated were working an average of 47.6 weeks.38 These disparities may also reflect sporadic work rather than continuous employment or individuals who are unable to find employment at all.

Figure 4

Yet many young adults are not employed at all in their first year after release—and the gap widens years down the line, showing how crucial the first year of reentry is to putting individuals on the path to long-term self-sufficiency. Of all surveyed young adults who were incarcerated and released before age 24, 1 in 5 reported working 0 weeks in their first full year after release; that number increases to 28 percent for Black, Hispanic, and mixed-race reentrants. Meanwhile, only 10 percent of all young adults who were never arrested or incarcerated reported working 0 weeks in the same year. In the 12th full year after release, 26 percent of formerly incarcerated young people reported working 0 weeks; 33 percent of Black, Hispanic, and mixed individuals reported the same, compared with only 13 percent of those who were never arrested or incarcerated.

1 in 5

Formerly incarcerated young adults who worked 0 weeks in their first year after release

As a result of these employment outcomes, formerly incarcerated young people have drastically lower incomes. After being in prison during some of their most formative years, they are left with difficult paths to build sustainable lives. For those incarcerated and released before turning 24, average income in the first full year out of prison was just $16,180, compared with $26,931 for people who were never arrested or incarcerated. In formerly incarcerated people’s 12th full year after release, they earned an average of just $34,801; Black, Hispanic, and mixed-race individuals in that group earned $27,949. (see Figure 5) Meanwhile, individuals who were never arrested or incarcerated earned $62,111.39

Figure 5

A fragmented workforce development funding landscape makes for sporadic training and employment supports

Structurally, there are a variety of legislative, policy, and funding barriers to creating greater access to training and work during reentry. The landscape of workforce development funding is highly fragmented. Federal workforce development funding largely falls under the umbrella of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which authorizes the public workforce development system of workforce development boards (WDBs) and American job centers and includes targeted funding for youth and individuals who face barriers to employment, including those reentering their communities after incarceration.40 Under the Second Chance Act, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) awards competitive grants to a variety of community organizations to offer reentry services that include employment but largely focus on other critical areas of need such as pre-release planning, coaching, housing, mental health and substance use disorder treatment, and more.41

When it comes to employment goals, however, research conducted by the National Association of Counties found that the federal government is the largest source of funding for workforce development boards that operate reentry employment programs for youth and adults, although only about half of WDBs operate a reentry program.42 And while reentry programs, often in collaboration with correctional facilities, are a high priority for WDBs, more than half reported that inadequate funding was a major barrier to maintaining a reentry program, particularly as policymakers at all levels are considering policies that would reduce incarceration and increase the demand for services that help individuals reintegrate into their communities.43

Yet workforce development boards are not the only provider of reentry employment services, and competitive grants can support other community-based organizations as well. In 2022, under Section 169 of WIOA—which authorizes funding for research and evaluation purposes—the U.S. Department of Labor awarded $43.3 million to organizations in 11 states serving reentering young people, and another $50.6 million to organizations in 14 states to provide services to adults reentering the workforce, starting from 20 days to 270 days before release.44

These programs are promising and will yield significant best practices for future programming. But because they are funded by research and evaluation grants, rather than as standing, legislated activity, their funds are subject to the priorities of the presidential administration in power. Furthermore, as competitive grants, they do not offer stable funding to organizations over a significant period of time.

And in many cases, WIOA funding operates under the model of employer “demand driven,” which prioritizes the needs of employers and industry over those of the jobseeker.45 Many industries in high demand for employees, such as health care or child care, are often unreceptive to reentering workers. Given the many barriers to employment that reentering individuals face, employment programs—especially those that offer a first job after incarceration, which may even be a young person’s first formal job—should be highly supportive and flexible in ways that allow workers the chance to be successful and transition into the broader labor market.

Lack of proper identification restricts access to public benefits, services, and work opportunities

Lack of access to legal identification is a significant barrier for people reentering their communities. Without access to valid identification, reentering individuals may find it hard or impossible to secure employment, find housing, access health care and other public benefits, or open a bank account.46 Despite the essential role that IDs play in the reentry process, many of the hundreds of thousands of people released from facilities across the United States leave without identification every year.47

Getting an ID after being released from incarceration can be a confusing, slow, and opaque process, especially for young people, many of whom may have never had the experience of getting an official ID in the past.48 In focus groups, both affected young people and corrections staff highlighted how lack of access to basic identification precludes young people from most other pathways to self-sufficiency, such as access to temporary benefits, education, or employment.49 In order to obtain identification in many states, people must submit documents such as their birth certificate or social security card to prove their identity. System-involved young people may never have had these documents in their possession and may find them difficult to recover if disconnected from their families. The cost of obtaining necessary documentation—and of the ID itself—may be an additional barrier, particularly for young people who have often not had the opportunity to generate income from paid employment.50

However, focus group participants highlighted promising practices that support reentrants in this goal, such as working with a reentry program such as the Center for Employment Opportunities to access birth certificates, social security cards, and IDs after release. Some New York-based corrections staff worked in facilities that attempted to address this challenge through a variety of strategies, including extending the expiration date of prison-issued IDs and working with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to reduce the number of documents required to access a driver’s license.51 Participants from states without these types of innovative policies commended these efforts, and one of them added, “If I could make one easy change to our corrections system, this would be it.”

Financial instability and a lack of employment-enabling supports are barriers to work and training

Financial stability is vital to all ages of the reentering population, most of whom experience high rates of economic, food, and housing insecurity along with physical and mental health symptoms. However, it is particularly vital to young adults who typically do not have work experience or education necessary to immediately access earned income.

Many reentering adults cannot access public benefits and supports, despite evidence that access to such programs improves employment and recidivism outcomes. Indeed, receiving assistance through safety net programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) has been found to reduce recidivism in both the short and long term, with people unable to access benefits returning to prison as the result of financially motivated crimes.52

Direct cash assistance pilots offer additional evidence of the effectiveness of financial supports. Cash assistance allows formerly incarcerated individuals to support themselves while they search for stable jobs. Recent initiatives in California and Florida from the Center for Employment Opportunities show that reentering adults who received a series of a few thousand dollars in direct cash assistance had improved economic security outcomes and did not decrease job search and employment activities.53 In focus groups, young people who accessed the center’s stipend for program participants shared that cash reduced their stress and allowed them to focus on learning new skills.

Yet there are many administrative burdens in the way of accessing the safety net upon reentry.54 First and foremost, many formerly incarcerated individuals simply do not know about the existence of or their eligibility for programs or how to navigate the application process and the rules for maintaining benefits. Young adults may have never previously applied for safety net programs themselves, even if their families previously received public benefits. Many formerly incarcerated individuals only learn about SNAP and their eligibility for it through their own peer networks after reentry.55

Even among services that are provided for reentering young people, there is typically little to no coordination among policies and systems within a state, making it difficult to ensure that the specific needs of an individual are met.56 A 2015 national survey found that almost half of states reported that “no single government agency is responsible for ensuring that incarcerated youth transition successfully to an educational or vocational setting.”57 This challenge exists for other youth as well; for example, some higher education institutions have hired benefits navigators to help students access critical supports so that they are able to complete their degrees.58

In focus groups, participants reflected that they experienced a lack of support upon reentry, which made it easier to fall into harmful or unhealthy patterns. One participant said, “You can see all the opportunities, but it’s hard to get started.” Corrections staff who worked with reentrants also expressed feeling significantly understaffed and unable to dedicate the right level of individualized support to young people—and with immense pride highlighted success stories when that type of support was available. Some corrections staff worked at facilities that developed processes to streamline and standardize continuous support for reentering populations, such as enrolling eligible participants in Medicaid pre-release to ensure no lapse in coverage.59

You can see all the opportunities, but it’s hard to get started.Focus group participant

Even if individuals are aware of benefits, certain aspects of programs are not designed in a way that supports people with histories of incarceration—or, conversely, are designed in a way that disincentivizes employment. For example, under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, federal law imposes a lifetime ban on people with felony drug convictions from the SNAP and TANF programs.60 States have the ability to opt out of or modify the ban without risking any reduction in federal funding—South Carolina is the only state that still has the full ban on SNAP in place, while seven states have the full ban on TANF61—but a large number of states and the District of Columbia have a partial drug conviction ban for one or both programs. These require applicants to first submit to drug testing, complete drug treatment, or even wait until six months after release before applying.62 PRWORA also bans individuals whose disability results from addiction from receiving benefits from Social Security Disability Insurance and SSI.63

Additionally, while the SNAP Employment and Training program is an effective tool for improving job outcomes, it can result in reduced benefits for individuals who participate in a training program that pays them a modest wage.64 The program provides $300 million annually to states to run training programs and other job assistance for SNAP participants.65 But since SNAP benefit levels are based on income, reporting income from training can reduce benefit amounts, creating a disincentive to pursue training pathways. Furthermore, the training wage is insufficient to fully live off, but it is vital to many reentering individuals for paying rent, utilities, and other bills while training for a job with more sustainable long-term compensation. If they do not have that money, they may have to accept a low-wage job out of desperation.66

Access barriers

Access barriers include restrictive laws, policies, and misguided beliefs designed to exclude reentering young people from certain types of employment, further limiting the pool of potential workers for employers facing hiring challenges. These include stigma associated with conviction records, use of criminal background checks in hiring, and state licensure and credentialing requirements. One 2019 study revealed that 86 percent of employers used background checks to screen all full-time employees, while 67 percent used them to screen all part-time employees.67 A University of Michigan Law School study showed that job applicants with a conviction record were 60 percent less likely to receive a callback from a potential employer than applicants with no criminal record.68  Additionally, although roughly 25 percent of today’s jobs require some type of licensing or certification, applicants are often barred from obtaining the necessary credentials solely because of their record. According to the American Bar Association, there are currently more than 27,000 licensing restrictions at the state level, with an average of 56 occupational licensing laws with mandatory restrictions for people with a felony conviction.69

Job applicants with a conviction record were 60 percent less likely to receive a callback from a potential employer than applicants with no criminal record.

Indeed, regardless of whether a conviction is relevant to a licensing field, state licensure and credentialing requirements often exclude those with criminal records from entering some professions altogether. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, an examination of the National Inventory of Collateral Consequences revealed more than 6,000 mandatory occupational licensing bans for people with records.70 Even more states permit licensing exclusions for people with records.71 These bans prevent reentering individuals from a variety of professions they may otherwise be likely to pursue, including barbering, real estate, health care, and construction.72 Individuals often make it through multiple steps of training, fees, and applications only to find out that they cannot become licensed due to their criminal record. As a result, the pool of jobs that reentering young people have available to them is much smaller than that of the general population—especially given that 1 in 4 jobs require a certification to practice.73 In the past several years, some state and local lawmakers have called for fair chance licensing measures that would limit the number of record-based licensing restrictions in their states.

In focus groups, young people shared multiple instances of interviewing for jobs only to be told they were ineligible due to their criminal record, as well as accepting lower-paying or temporary work when a higher-paying role fell through due to a previously undisclosed policy or practice regarding background checks.74

Stigmatization of those involved with the criminal legal system has led many employers to wrongfully believe that reentering young people are undesirable employees, despite the fact that 82 percent of those who employ reentering individuals say that the value of these employees is as high or higher than that of employees without a record.75


Percentage of employers who employ reentering individuals and say that they value these employees at least as highly as those without a record

Furthermore, it is often difficult for individuals to seal or clear eligible records, even in states with a court-petitioning process to do so. The process is often confusing, expensive, and protracted for the few eligible individuals who are even aware that they can have their records expunged. As a result, only 6.5 percent of people eligible successfully clear their records within five years of eligibility.76

A growing number of states have taken action to advance automated record clearance measures, also known as clean slate measures. These include Pennsylvania, which passed an automated record clearance bill in 2018 with bipartisan effort. Since the measure’s implementation in 2019, it has helped seal more than 40 million cases for more than 1.2 million people.77 The state is now working to expand eligibility for certain drug felony convictions.78 Although implementation of clean slate is at an early stage and its full impacts are not yet fully realized, the measures are expanding employment opportunities for millions of people across the country.

Read more about clean slate:

Yet even as clean slate continues to grow at the state level, opportunities to expunge federal records remain unavailable. Currently there is no process, court-petitioned or otherwise, to seal or clear a federal record.


Successful reentry fosters safer communities and a stronger society. Ensuring that young people exiting incarceration are able to build full lives requires a multipronged approach to guarantee access to vital resources, necessary services, and employment opportunities. Legislators and policymakers at all levels of government should ensure reentering young people have access to existing social safety net programs that lead to financial stability and support employment goals; adequately fund and intentionally structure workforce development programs dedicated to reentering young adults; and create policies that facilitate access to the labor market after incarceration.

Given the complex nature of incarceration and its effects, many federal, state, and local actors are either directly responsible for or influential in achieving these outcomes. The following recommendations are made with the primary policymaking audiences in mind, but they can be achieved through other vehicles as well. For example, while state agencies can develop administrative processes that guarantee access to photo identification, state or federal legislation could also achieve this, as could a grant program through the DOJ that incentivizes and funds states.

1. Guarantee access to photo identification upon release from incarceration

IDs play an essential role in facilitating reentry as a gateway to public benefit programs and employment. Drivers licenses and photo IDs are issued by states, and therefore, all states should create and facilitate a process for acquiring IDs that places the burden on systems rather than individual inmates. Some states and local jurisdictions have already acted to improve access to IDs upon release through legislative mandates79 or partnerships between corrections departments and appropriate agencies.80 While states may differ in whether they choose to rely on legislative mandates, agency partnerships, or other means to ensure access to IDs upon release, there are a few critical components that states should incorporate into any reform:

  • Issue permanent rather than temporary IDs. Some states have created ways for individuals to receive temporary IDs upon release and then apply for permanent IDs when they have collected additional verification.81 While this practice is helpful in the short term, issuing temporary IDs delays rather than removes existing barriers to accessing IDs.
  • Allow institutional IDs to serve as identity verification documents. One of the biggest barriers to getting an ID is lacking the documentation needed to verify identity. One way to eliminate this burden is for states to allow institutional IDs to serve as official verification documentation. Confirming someone’s identity is necessary in order to process them through the criminal legal system, so possessing an institutional ID should be sufficient to prove an individual’s identity for the purposes of issuing an ID.
  • Eliminate costs to obtaining identification. Across the country, most people leaving incarceration have limited access to financial resources. This is particularly true for young people who have little to no work experience and limited ability to build savings. Some jurisdictions have created waiver processes to allow the costs of obtaining IDs to be covered by the state if someone can formally demonstrate need. While these are well-intended programs, they create an additional administrative burden for those trying to get an ID. States should provide access to identification free of charge as part of a standardized process to prepare individuals for release. The federal government can support states by leveraging DOJ grant funding to support the development and advancement of programs that provide access to IDs upon reentry.

2. Ensure access to a social safety net that provides financial stability and enables employment

Without financial support while transitioning back to the community, many individuals suffer financial, food, and housing insecurity, which increases their likelihood of future arrest. Given significant evidence that supporting people financially as they return from incarceration sets them on a path to stability and self-reliance, governments should do everything they can to ensure reentering young people—who are among the least financially secure people reentering communities—are able to meet their basic needs as they complete their education or search for sustainable employment. This requires that policymakers improve awareness of and access to social safety net programs by doing the following:

  • Increase access to and enrollment in relevant programs pre-release. Incarceration facilities should be required to inform people about the services and safety net programs available to them upon release, as well as facilitate enrollment. Reentering individuals should be allowed to enroll in SNAP and Medicaid pre-release, which ensures economic stability and access to health care during the period of transition. This can be accomplished through either legislative or administrative federal or state action.
  • Fund benefits navigators. Congress should fund full-time positions that liaise between eligible applicants exiting incarceration and public benefits systems such as TANF, SNAP, Medicaid, and those related to housing and child care. Navigators should be responsible for ensuring that reentering young people are aware of and enroll in relevant programs, as many may be encountering them for the first time. Navigators are growing in popularity in different contexts, such as higher education.
  • Ending the drug conviction ban for SNAP and TANF benefits. Congress should end the ban on safety net access for people with drug and drug-related convictions. This would ensure that reentering young people can access treatment and support, furthering employment and community safety goals. States also have the power to end the ban for both SNAP and TANF benefits and should do so in the absence of congressional action.
  • Disregard income earned during training when considering SNAP eligibility. Congress should disregard temporary paid work income when considering someone’s eligibility for SNAP Employment and Training benefits. The SNAP Employment and Training program can help reentering youth gain the skills and experience necessary to obtain quality long-term jobs that require training to access, and SNAP benefits are vital to keeping low-income Americans from going hungry. Government should not disincentivize individuals from seeking training and employment goals.

3. Adequately fund and intentionally structure workforce development programs dedicated to reentering young adults

To ensure safe and successful transitions from incarceration to the workforce, Congress should dedicate funding toward reentry services for youth in a reauthorization of WIOA, as well as ensure that allowable uses of funding include supportive and wraparound services, subsidized employment, dedicated case management, and paid occupational training.

During the 117th Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill reauthorizing WIOA that included two provisions in line with the above principles.82 Although that bill has not advanced further, lawmakers should include these provisions in any future WIOA reauthorization or enact them by other available avenues. Several improvements to WIOA could magnify their impact:

  • Section 278, Reentry Employment Opportunities. This section funds a competitive grant program that can allocate funds for up to four years to serve youth and adults during a pre- or post-release period.83 Eligible uses of funding include supportive services, subsidized employment through transitional jobs, provision of or referral to mental health providers, and assistance with receiving driver’s licenses or other documents needed for employment. Inclusion of these services is critical in order to ensure that young people receive a suite of services that significantly improves the likelihood of retention in employment.Section 278 could be improved by funding the program as adequately funded formula grants rather than competitive grants to ensure equitable distribution of funds and to build a longer-lasting reentry infrastructure within the workforce development landscape.
  • Section 234, Summer and Year-Round Employment for Youth.84 This section allots formula funds for local areas to provide employment opportunities for youth, including subsidized and unsubsidized employment. It mandates that up to 65 percent of wages may be subsidized by federal funds. Out-of-school youth—which WIOA defines as young people aged 16 to 24 who are not in school and unemployed or underemployed—are eligible for these programs, and therefore, local workforce boards can complement reentry funding with stable, subsidized employment funds.WIOA currently requires that at least 75 percent of state and local youth funds be spent on out-of-school youth;85 a similar concept should be applied to youth employment programs to ensure they address the needs of this distinct population.

Furthermore, to ensure effective outcomes for reentering young adults and their communities, federal and state legislatures and agencies with discretionary control over workforce development funding should require the following programmatic structures:

  • Transition to formula funding rather than competitive grant funding to foster equity and sustainability.
  • Allow funding to be used for supportive services, including but not limited to case management; benefit support; child care; transportation; housing; and access to mental health, behavioral health, and medical treatment, ideally through a single point of contact who can support referrals to partners.
  • Focus employment services on providing successful work experiences that build individuals’ work history and confidence, including subsidized employment, social enterprise employment, and flexible work arrangements.
  • Attach wages or stipends to training programs to ensure that individuals who are looking to improve their employment prospects do not accept lower-quality jobs in lieu of better ones with career pathways that require training to access.

Adequate, targeted workforce development funding is critical to ensuring a higher likelihood of successful reintegration after incarceration.

4. Enact employment policies that facilitate access to the labor market

Even if young people have access to identification, social safety net programs, and workforce training, they may face additional barriers to work in the form of employment restrictions based on their convictions or arrest histories. To ensure justice-involved young people have equitable access to employment opportunities, state and federal governments should implement the following measures, which give reentering individuals a fair chance at employment:

  • Enact automatic record clearance at the federal and state level. Both federal and state governments should pass clean slate legislation. If passed, the proposed Clean Slate Act of 2021 would be the first record-clearing remedy at the federal level for certain federal offenses.86 Automated record clearance measures provide a mechanism for directly affected individuals to have their eligible records cleared automatically once certain conditions are satisfied. The automated process not only expands opportunities for record expungement but also alleviates many of the issues that stem from the court petitioning process. As more expedient processes to clearing individuals’ records, clean slate measures help ensure that returning young adults are not burdened by the stigma of their conviction records as they work toward entering the workforce and building successful futures.
  • States should enact and continue to expand fair chance hiring measures. Measures such as “ban-the-box” prohibit employers from considering job applicants’ records during the early stages of the hiring process. The policy was first championed by All of Us or None—a national civil rights organization led by formerly incarcerated individuals—and has since been adopted by public employers in at least 36 states and 150 locales.87 The measure was also adopted at the federal level under the First Chance Act and prohibits federal employers from looking into an applicant’s conviction history until a conditional offer is extended.88
  • Enact fair chance licensing laws at the state level. Fair chance licensing laws prohibit licensing entities from denying occupational licenses to applicants solely because of their conviction records. States should enact measures that would limit their number of record-based licensing restrictions.


Federal and state governments have significant opportunities to make investments and decisions that ensure access to identification, reform the social safety net, adequately fund workforce development, and enact employment policies that do not block reentering young people from the labor market. A holistic approach that builds a stable and supported path to employment will support the needs and ambitions of reentering young people and build stronger, safer communities.


The authors are grateful to Kyle Ross for his extensive assistance during the development of this report, as well as to David Correa for their thorough fact-checking.


  1. Authors’ calculations based on E. Ann Carson, “Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables, Table 10” (Washington: U.S. Department of Justice, 2021), available at
  2. Youth focus group participants, interview with authors via Zoom, June 15, 2022, on file with authors.
  3. Ebony N. Russ and others, “Prison And Jail Reentry And Health,” Health Affairs (2021), available at
  4. Bradley Custer, “How Colleges and Universities Can Bring Pell Grant-Funded Programs Back to Prisons” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2022), available at
  5. Reentry Coordination Council, “Coordination to Reduce Barriers to Reentry: lessons learned from COVID-19 and beyond” (Washington: U.S. Department of Justice, 2022), available at
  6. Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Infographic Highlights Trends in Youth Incarceration Over Three Decade,” December 14, 2021, available at
  7. Josh Rovner, ”Racial Disparities in Youth Incarceration Persist” (Washington: The Sentencing Project, 2022), available at
  8. Fair and Just Prosecution, “Young Adults in the Justice System,” available at, (last accessed December 2022).
  9. Jeffery T. Ulmer and Darrell Steffensmeier, “The Age and Crime Relationship, Social Variation, Social Explanations,” in Kevin M. Beaver, J.C. Barnes, and Brian B. Boutwell, eds., The Nurture Versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology: On the Origins of Criminal Behavior and Criminality (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc., 2014), pp. 377–396, available at
  10. Ibid.
  11. Authors’ calculations based on Lauren G. Beatty and Tracy L. Snell, “Profile of Prison Inmates, 2016” (Washington: U.S. Department of Justice, 2021), available at
  12. Authors’ calculations based on Carson, “Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables, Tables 10 and 11.”
  13. Carson, “Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables, Table 10.”
  14. Authors’ calculations based on Carson, “Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables, Tables 10 and 11.”
  15. Calyssa Lawyer, “Closing the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” Center for American Progress, August 15, 2011, available at
  16. Libby Nelson and Dara Lind, “The school-to-prison pipeline, explained,” Vox, October 27, 2015, available at
  17. Center for Law and Social Policy, “Youth Data Update 2022: Justice and Safe Communities,” available at (last accessed January 2023).
  18. Authors’ calculations based on Beatty and Snell, “Profile of Prison Inmates, 2016.”
  19. Center for American Progress, Movement Advancement Project, and Youth First, “Unjust: LGBTQ Youth Incarcerated in the Juvenile Justice System” (Washington and Denver: 2016), available at
  20. 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
  21. National Center for Transgender Equality, “LGTQ People Behind Bars: A Guide To Understanding the Issues Facing Transgender Prisoners and Their Legal Rights” (Washington: 2018), available at
  22. Laura M. Maruschak, Jennifer Bronson, and Mariel Alper, “Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016: Disabilities Reported by Prisoners” (Washington: U.S. Department of Justice, 2021), available at; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Disability Impacts All of Us,” available at (last accessed January 2023).
  23. Maruschak, Bronson, and Alper, “Disabilities Reported by Prisoners.”
  24. Jessica Farmer, “How the ’school-to-prison pipeline’ targets Black, underprivileged communities,” The Shorthorn, April 7, 2021, available at
  25. Chris Hacker and others, “Handcuffs in Hallways: Hundreds of elementary students arrested at U.S. schools,” CBS News, December 9, 2023, available at
  26. Ashley Nellis, “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons” (Washington: The Sentencing Project: 2021), available at
  27. Ibid.
  28. Rebecca Vallas, “Disabled Behind Bars: The Mass Incarceration of People With Disabilities in America’s Jails and Prisons” (Washington: Center for American Progress: 2016), available at
  29. Jane Hereth, “What is Behind the Overrepresentation of People Who Identify as LGBTQ+ In The Criminal Legal System?”, MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge, June 24, 2022, available at
  30. Authors’ calculations based on Beatty and Snell, “Profile of Prison Inmates, 2016.”
  31. Youth focus group participants, interview with authors via Zoom, June 15, 2022, on file with authors.
  32. Ibid.
  33. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Projections: Occupations that Need More Education for Entry are Projected to Grow Faster Than Average,” available at (last accessed March 2023).
  34. Ibid.; Authors’ calculations based on Beatty and Snell, “Profile of Prison Inmates, 2016.”
  35. Authors’ calculations based on Caroline Harlow Wolf, “Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: Educational and Correctional Populations” (Washington: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003), available at  
  36. Youth focus group participants, interview with authors via Zoom, June 15, 2022, on file with authors; Corrections staff focus group participants, interview with authors via Zoom, November 9, 2022, and November 10, 2022, on file with authors.
  37. Adam Looney and Nicholas Turner, “Work and opportunity before and after incarceration” (Washington: Brookings, 2018), available at
  38. Authors’ calculations based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997,” available at (last accessed January 2023).
  39. Ibid.
  40. Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Public Law 113-128, 113th Cong., 2nd sess. (July 22, 2014), available at
  41. U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, “FY 2022 Second Chance Act Community-based Reentry Program,” available at (last accessed January 2023).
  42. Natalie Ortiz, “Second Chances, Safer Counties: Workforce Development and Re-Entry” (Washington: National Association of Counties, 2016), available at
  43. Ibid.
  44. U.S. Department of Labor, “US Department of Labor awards $43.3m in grants to help provide job training, employment services to justice-involved young people,” Press release, June 23, 2022, available at; U.S. Department of Labor, “US Department of Labor awards $50.6m in pathway home grants to provide pre-release job training, services to incarcerated people,” Press release, June 29, 2022, available at
  45. Benjamin Collins and David H. Bradley, “The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the One-Stop Delivery System” (Washington: Congressional Research Service, 2022), available at
  46. Alexis Farmer, “Lack of ID unnecessary hurdle after prison,” CommonWealth Magazine, November 20, 2020, available at
  47. National Conference of State Legislatures, “Providing Identification for Those Released from Incarceration,” available at (last accessed January 2023).
  48. Farmer, “Lack of ID unnecessary hurdle after prison.”
  49. Youth focus group participants, interview with authors via Zoom, June 15, 2022, on file with authors; Corrections staff focus group participants, interview with authors via Zoom, November 9, 2022, and November 10, 2022, on file with authors.
  50. The Fortune Society, “Getting an ID after Prison: The Difficulties and Fortune’s Solutions,” August 22, 2018, available at
  51. Youth focus group participants, interview with authors via Zoom, June 15, 2022, on file with authors; Corrections staff focus group participants, interview with authors via Zoom, November 9, 2022, and November 10, 2022, on file with authors.
  52. Crystal Yang, “Does Public Assistance Reduce Recidivism?”, American Economic Review 107 (5) (2017): 551–555, available at; Manasi Deshpande and Michael Mueller-Smith, “Does Welfare Prevent Crime? The Criminal Justice Outcomes of Youth Removed from SSI,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 137 (4) (2022): 2263–2307, available at; Cody Tuttle, “Snapping Back: Food Stamp Bans and Criminal Recidivism,” American Economic Journal 11 (2) (2019): 301–327, available at
  53. Sam Schaeffer and Ivonne Garcia, “How $24M in Cash Grants Provided a Lifeline for Returning Citizens During Pandemic” (New York: MDRC, 2021), available at; Mark Wilson, “Florida and California Experiments Use Direct Cash Assistance to Newly Released Prisoners to Combat Recidivism,” Prison Legal News, August 1, 2022, available at
  54. Justin Schweitzer, “How To Address the Administrative Burdens of Accessing the Safety Net” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2022), available at
  55. Eric Borsuk, “SNAP Benefits offered me the security to focus on my future,” Center for Employment Opportunities, January 24, 2022, available at
  56. U.S. Council of State Governments Justice Center, “Reducing recidivism and improving other outcomes for young adults in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems” (New York: 2015), available at  
  57. Alexandra Miller and William J. Therrien, “Returning Home: Reducing Recidivism for Juvenile Offenders With Disabilities Through Transition Planning,” Beyond Behavior 27 (2) (2018): 108–115, available at
  58. Brianna Hatch, “Students Are Struggling With Basic Needs. So Colleges Are Tapping ‘Benefits Navigators.’,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 19, 2022, available at
  59. Youth focus group participants, interview with authors, via Zoom, June 15, 2022; Corrections staff focus group participants, interview with authors, via Zoom, November 9, 2022, and November 10, 2022.
  60. Darrel Thompson and Ashley Burnside, “No More Double Punishments: Lifting the Ban on SNAP and TANF for People with Prior Felony Drug Convictions” (Washington: Center for Law and Social Policy, 2022), available at
  61. Ibid.
  62. Diane Schanzenbach and others, “Twelve Facts about Incarceration and Prisoner Reentry” (Washington: The Hamilton Project, 2016), available at
  63. AARP, “Can someone with a substance abuse problem get Social Security disability benefits?”, April 19, 2021, available at
  64. Center for Employment Opportunities, “Congress: Ensure SNAP Eligibility During SNAP Employment & Training,” available at (last accessed November 2022).
  65. U.S. Department of Agriculture, “What is SNAP E&T?”, available at (last accessed November 2022).
  66. Quiana Pugh, “Jordan’s story: Need consistent SNAP benefits during reentry,” Center for Employment Opportunities, April 11, 2022, available at
  67. Hr Research Institute, “How Human Resources Professionals View and Use Background Screening in Employment” (2019), available at
  68. Amanda Agan and Sonja B. Starr, “The Effect of Criminal Records on Access to Employment,” American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings 107 (5) (2017): 560–564, available at
  69. Beth Avery, Maurice Emsellem, and Han Lu, “Fair Chance Licensing Reform: Opening Pathways for People with Records to Join Licensed Professions” (New York: National Employment Law Project, 2019), available at
  70. National Conference of State Legislatures, “Occupational Licensing Final Report: Assessing State Policies and Practices” (Washington: 2020), available at
  71. Ibid.
  72. Ibid.
  73. Ibid.
  74. Youth focus group participants, interview with authors, via Zoom, June 15, 2022.
  75. Prison Fellowship, “Second Chance Hiring: The Benefits of Employing Returning Citizens,” available at (last accessed June 2022).
  76. Akua Amaning, “Advancing Clean Slate: The Need for Automatic Record Clearance During the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Center for American Progress, June 25, 2020, available at
  77. Community Legal Services of Philadelphia,
    “Clean Slate Update: 40 Million Cases Sealed,” available at (last accessed March 2023).
  78. Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, “Expand Clean Slate PA,” (last accessed March 2023).
  79. National Conference of State Legislatures, ”Providing Identification for Those Released from Incarceration,” available at (last accessed December 2022).
  80. Angie Jackson, “New Michigan program will help people on parole get IDs upon release from prison,” Detroit Free Press, June 24, 2020, available at; Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, “Florida Licensing on Wheels (FLOW),” available at (last accessed December 2022).
  81. Farmer, “Lack of ID unnecessary hurdle after prison.”
  82. Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, H.R. 7309, 117th Cong., 2nd sess. (March 31, 2022), available at
  83. Ibid.
  84. Ibid.
  85. Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Public Law 113-128, 113th Congress, 2nd sess. (July 22, 2014), available at
  86. Clean Slate Act of 2019, H.R. 2348, 116th Cong., 1st sess. (April 22, 2019), available at
  87. Beth Avery and Han Lu, “Ban the Box: U.S. Cities, Counties, and States Adopt Fair Hiring Practices,” National Employment Law Project, October 2, 2021, available at
  88. Fair Chance Act, Section 387, 116th Cong., 2nd sess. (February 7, 2020), available at

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Marina Zhavoronkova

Former Senior Fellow

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Senior Policy Analyst, Criminal Justice Reform

Justin Schweitzer

Former Policy Analyst

Akua Amaning

Director, Criminal Justice Reform


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