Center for American Progress

Supporting Women Affected by the Criminal Legal System

Supporting Women Affected by the Criminal Legal System

The successful reentry of women affected by the criminal legal system into the economy and society improves their economic stability and expands the labor force, providing economywide gains.

Phot shows a woman in a pink jacket sitting in front of her computer looking thoughtfully at the screen
A formerly incarcerated woman who was released from prison during the pandemic and now advocates for criminal justice reform works on her computer in her home in Baltimore, April 2021. (Getty/Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post )

Other chapters in the Playbook for the Advancement of Women in the Economy

Supporting Women Affected by the Criminal Legal System

Akua Amaning

Nearly 2.5 million women and girls in the United States are released from prison and jail each year, and the sooner they obtain employment, the better their chances are for successful reentry into the U.S. economy and society.1 Unfortunately, for women affected by the criminal legal system, their exit from incarceration is troubled by inadequate reentry support, limited education and job training, and stigmas associated with an arrest or conviction record that often create barriers to sufficient job opportunities. This debilitating combination of barriers can leave them with very little opportunity to gain economic stability and can be particularly devastating for women of color, who are incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates than white women.2

Without a sustainable income, these women are vulnerable to housing instability, poverty, and a fundamental lack of life resources needed to successfully reenter society, which can ultimately lead them toward recidivism and return to jail or prison. And as more women have become breadwinners for their children and families, limited access to work can also have negative economic security implications not only for the women themselves, but also for their children and families. In turn, this can have adverse economywide impacts, including by limiting the potential pool of workers available in the U.S. labor market.

According to a 2018 study by Justice Action Network, “85 percent of Americans agree the main goal of our criminal justice system should be rehabilitation, … [and] 90 percent believe that barriers to employment, school, and other opportunities should be removed for formerly incarcerated people.”3 Policymakers at both the federal and state levels should support the advancement of measures that will address the specific challenges for women reentering their communities from jail or prison and help improve their employment and labor force outcomes.

This chapter of the “Playbook for the Advancement of Women in the Economy” details the economic challenges women face after grappling with the criminal legal system, including a lack of education and training opportunities, barriers to labor market entry, and a dearth of gender-responsive treatment and support. It presents policy options at the state and federal levels that could help reentering women enter and stay in the labor force, such as legislative and fiscal support for more education and job training programs and steps to prevent records from limiting job and education opportunities to improve both their outcomes and the U.S. economy overall.

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The problem

In recent decades, the rate of incarcerated women has grown twice as fast as that of men.4 Yet resources to support their reentry are limited, and there is often a lack of gender-responsive services available to address the unique challenges women face when returning to their communities and finding work.5

Limited education and training opportunities

The rate of unemployment for formerly incarcerated women without a high school diploma is high, ranging from nearly 30 percent for white women to as high as 60 percent for Black women.6 More than half of all formerly incarcerated individuals hold at least a high school or GED diploma, yet the number of available jobs that traditionally do not require more than a high school education are decreasing over time, making it more difficult for formerly incarcerated job seekers to find any job, let alone a high-quality job.7

Researchers predict that, by 2027, 70 percent of all jobs in the U.S. economy will have some educational or training requirement beyond high school.8 A postsecondary education can improve one’s chances of finding a high-quality job and ultimately lower the chances of recidivating. Yet barriers while in prison or jail are too often compounded upon reentry to society. There is a very limited number of education and vocational training programs during incarceration, as well as few opportunities to complete college programs while in prison or jail. Both during incarceration and after, there is also a broad lack of access to financial aid and scholarships, as well as discriminatory practices in college admissions practices based on arrest or conviction records.

All these barriers keep formerly incarcerated individuals from obtaining credentials or a college degree.9 The impacts are so drastic that, on average, less than 4 percent of formerly incarcerated women hold a college degree.10

Barriers to job opportunities

Even with the necessary qualifications, the stigma of an arrest or conviction record follows a person beyond their time in the system and can prevent formerly incarcerated individuals from obtaining job opportunities. Today, 9 in 10 employers consider an applicant’s arrest or conviction history when making hiring decisions. Research also shows that job applicants with a record are 60 percent less likely than applicants without a record to receive a callback for an open position.11 Among record-holding applicants, women were around 30 percentage points less likely than men to receive a callback, and Black women were 93 percent less likely than white women to receive a callback or be offered a job, signaling that the stigma of a record hits hardest for women and especially women of color.12

Arrest or conviction records also can create challenges to obtaining an occupational license and certification, which are required for more than 25 percent of all jobs in the United States.13 There are more than 27,000 state licensing restrictions that may block as many as 600,000 formerly incarcerated individuals every day from accessing a well-paying job.14 This becomes particularly challenging for formerly incarcerated women; many of the fastest-growing jobs in the country are in women-dominated fields, such as health care support and personal care, that require a license.15

Lack of gender-responsive treatment and support

Many women enter the criminal justice system suffering higher rates, compared with men, of victimization, trauma, mental health, substance use disorders, financial instability, homelessness, and other challenges that can limit job opportunities and hinder movement toward economic stability when they are not properly addressed.16 Gender-responsive treatment and support, or programs designed to take into account the distinct needs and life experiences of women, are often limited within carceral settings. Additionally, long-term programs are less available in jails than in prisons.17 This is a particular challenge for women, who are more likely than men to be incarcerated in jail rather than in prison due to a number of factors, primarily the different types of charges, convictions, and sentences women are given in comparison to men, and therefore are less likely to have access to much-needed treatment.18

Lack of gender-responsive support is especially difficult for the many formerly incarcerated women navigating challenging family dynamics. The majority of incarcerated women in prisons and jails are parents, and many are the primary caregivers of their children.19 Parental incarceration prevents mothers from being able to provide financial support and adequate care to their children; this may ultimately lead to children experiencing harms such as trauma due to parental loss or instability, mental and physical health problems, struggles with educational achievement, and family-related uncertainty.20

The economic benefits

Ongoing support programs for formerly incarcerated women are crucial to combat these harms and effectively navigate the challenging dynamics to reunification with their children once they return from prison or jail.21 For the millions of women who are approaching release from prison or jail and ready to enter the U.S. labor force, participation in formal education and transitional programs prior to release has been found to be helpful in improving employment outcomes.

One study found that individuals in a correctional education program were 43 percent less likely to recidivate and had a 13 percent higher chance of obtaining employment.22 Other studies have found that women in ongoing transitional programs were more likely to experience stable employment and formal pay after their release.23 Opportunities to expunge records also have contributed to wage increases, which help reduce poverty and build wealth over time.24

Incarceration-related costs can carry negative economic impacts for the country and economy as a whole; the United States spends approximately $81 billion each year on mass incarceration,25 in addition to the $78 billion to $87 billion lost in gross domestic product annually when formerly incarcerated people are left out of the labor force.26

Conversely, investments toward successful employment and reentry outcomes for formerly incarcerated people can curtail public costs and draw in more income tax revenue.27 The U.S. Department of Education noted in April 2023 that research estimates “for every dollar invested in prison education programs, taxpayers save four to five dollars from lowered recidivism rates.”28

The policy recommendations

Federal and state policymakers should prioritize reform efforts that will support reentry outcomes specific to formerly incarcerated women. To be successful, these efforts must comprehensively advance measures that help provide access to fair and equitable employment opportunities across a range of interconnected reforms.

Federal policy recommendations

Federal policymakers should consider taking the following steps to help improve the economic outcomes of women affected by the U.S. legal system nationwide. Specifically, Congress should:

  • Support ongoing efforts to invest in job training and reentry services: Congress should support the Biden administration’s ongoing efforts to support formerly incarcerated individuals by investing federal funds toward comprehensive reentry services. The administration has already demonstrated its commitment to support formerly incarcerated individuals in their efforts to return to their communities and build toward successful futures, investing nearly $1 billion in job training resources, recovery support, and reentry services.29 The White House also has outlined a comprehensive strategy to expand employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated people.30
  • End restrictions to social safety net programs: Congress should support the end of federal restrictions faced by formerly incarcerated individuals to social safety net programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF). Current federal law allows states to impose a lifetime ban on these two programs to individuals convicted of a drug-related felony.31 These programs provide families in need with food and cash assistance, respectively, and recipients of SNAP benefits also can access employment and job training programs. Both programs are a critical resource to help individuals meet their basic needs, and research suggests eligibility can also help improve reintegration outcomes for formerly incarcerated people.32
  • Expand access educational opportunities for system-affected individuals: The Promoting Reentry through Education in Prisons (PREP) Act aims to create an Office of Prison Education within the Federal Bureau of Prisons to standardize federal prison education and provide funding to expand quality education programs.33 The Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act also would provide postsecondary institutions guidance and recommendations around removing questions related to an applicant’s arrest or conviction records during the initial admissions process.34 Together, both measures can expand access to education and help to remove barriers to higher education that often stem from the negative stigma associated with a record.
  • Establish federal expungement opportunities through automatic record-sealing measures: Currently, there is virtually no measure to expunge a federal criminal record. An individual can request a presidential pardon, but a pardon does not clear or seal a federal record from background checks. The Clean Slate Act would change this by creating the first federal record-clearance petition measure and mandate the automatic record sealing of eligible federal drug offenses.35 The Fresh Start Act would support clean slate measures at the state level by providing federal grant funding to support states that have passed their own automatic record expungement measures.36

State policy recommendations

State policymakers also must take steps to support women exiting prison or jail by enacting measures that complement or expand upon the federal recommendation detailed above. Specifically:

  • Pass state-level clean slate measures: Most states have established a court petition process to expunge a state record. But the petition process can be arduous and often comes with its own challenges, including court and legal fees, time out of work, child care and transportation needs, and retraumatization dealing with the court system.37 State lawmakers should expand expungement efforts by passing automatic record-clearance measures that would automatically seal or clear eligible records. Pennsylvania was the first to pass a state clean slate measure in 2018, and since then, 11 others have followed suit.38 Early implementation data suggest automatic record clearance has great potential to provide millions of formerly incarcerated women across the country a fair chance to rebuild.39
  • Advance fair chance employment measures: While they are not stand-alone solutions, states can adopt fair chance employment measures to help support a more comprehensive strategy to ensure formerly incarcerated women are not shut out of the labor market. Fair chance hiring laws, commonly known as ban the box laws, prohibit employers from considering an applicant’s arrest or conviction history in the early stages of the hiring process, while fair chance licensing laws prevent state licensors from denying occupational licenses or certifications to applicants solely based on their arrest or conviction records.40
  • Invest in post-incarceration training and education programs: The majority of incarcerated women are housed in jails, which typically hold individuals with shorter sentences, and thus there is less time to complete an education program while incarcerated. States should invest more funding to support post-incarceration education programs specifically for formerly incarcerated women. There are comprehensive reentry programs geared toward women throughout the country, but without state support, many programs lack enough funding to meet the full needs of their communities.41


Formerly incarcerated women can contribute greatly to the overall U.S. economy and deserve a fair and equitable opportunity to reach their full potential after serving their sentences. Federal and state policymakers should advance resources and support that will ensure women affected by the criminal legal system have a real chance to pursue education and employment opportunities and thrive as part of U.S. workforce.

The author would like to thank Rose Khattar, Sara Estep, Rachael Eisenberg, Sabrina Talukder, Anona Neal, Bela Salas-Betsch, Lily Roberts, and Will Roberts for their assistance.


  1. Aleks Kajstura and Wendy Sawyer, “Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023” (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2023), available at,used%20for%20long%2Dterm%20incarceration.,used%20for%20long%2Dterm%20incarceration.
  2. Southern Coalition for Social Justice, “Mass Incarceration and People of Color,” available at (last accessed December 2023).
  3. Vera Staff, “Overwhelming Majority of Americans Support Criminal Justice Reform, New Poll Finds,” Vera Institute of Justice, January 25, 2018, available at
  4. Kajstura and Sawyer, “Women’s Mass Incarceration.”
  5. Wendy Sawyer, “Who’s helping the 1.9 million women released from prison and jails each year?”, Prison Policy Initiative, July 19, 2019, available at
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Khoi Quach and more, “Prison, College, and the Labor Market: A Critical Analysis by Formerly Incarcerated and Justice-Impacted Students,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 701 (1) (2022): 78–97, available at See also Kelsie Chesnut, Niloufer Taber, and Jasmine Quintanta, “Second Chance Pell: Five Years of Expanding Higher Education Programs in Prison, 2016–2021” (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2022), available at
  9. Lucius Couloute, “Getting Back on Course: Educational exclusion and attainment among formerly incarcerated people” (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2018), available at See also Elizabeth Allen, “For Incarcerated Women and Their Families, Equal Access to Education Transforms Lives,” Vera Institute of Justice, October 3, 2023, available at
  10. Ibid.
  11. Rachel West and others, “News You Can Use: Research Roundup for Re-Entry Advocates” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2018), available at See also Amanda Agan and Sonja B. Starr, “The Effect of Criminal Records on Access to Employment,” American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings 107 (5) (2017): 560–564, available at
  12. Scott H. Decker and others, “Criminal Stigma, Race, Gender and Employment: An Expanded Assessment of the Consequences of Imprisonment for Employment” (Phoenix: Arizona State University, 2014), available at
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Lucius Couloute, “Nowhere to Go: Homelessness among formerly incarcerated people” (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2018), available at See also Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “After Incarceration: A Guide to Helping Women Re-enter the Community” (Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020), available at,resources%20to%20providers%20who%20can%20help%20them%20succeed.
  17. Sawyer, “Who’s helping the 1.9 million women released from prison and jails each year?”
  18. Ibid.
  19. Holly Ventura Miller, “Female Reentry and Gender-Responsive Programming: Recommendations for Policy and Practice,” National Institute of Justice, May 19, 2021, available at See also Wendy Sawyer and Wanda Bertram, “Prisons and jails will separate millions of mothers from their children in 2022,” Prison Policy Initiative, May 4, 2022, available at,they%20can’t%20afford%20bail.
  20. Sawyer and Bertram, “Prisons and jails will separate millions of mothers from their children in 2022.”
  21. Emily M. Wright and others, “Gender-Responsive Lessons Learned and Policy Implications for Women in Prison: A Review,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 39 (12) (2012): 1612–1632, available at
  22. Lois M. Davis and others, “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp., 2013), available at
  23. Marie Garcia and Nancy Ritter, “Improving Access to Services for Females Returning to the Community,” National Institute of Justice Journal (269) (2012), available at
  24. CCRC Staff, “Michigan set-asides found to increase wages and reduce recidivism,” Collateral Consequences Resource Center, February 27, 2018, available at
  25. Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy, “Following the Money of Mass Incarceration” (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2017), available at
  26. U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “The Business Case for Criminal Justice Reform: Second Chance Hiring” (Washington: 2021), available at
  27. Amy Loyd, “Second Chances: Education and Justice Involved Students,” U.S. Department of Education, Aprils 28, 2023, available at
  28. Ibid.
  29. The White House, “A Proclamation on Second Chance Month, 2023,” March 31, 2023, available at
  30. The White House, “Incarceration to Employment: A Comprehensive Strategy to Expand Employment Opportunities for Formerly Incarcerated” (Washington: 2022), available at
  31. 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,can%20opt%20to%20remove%20or%20modify%20the%20ban.
  32. Collateral Consequences Resource Center, “Accessing SNAP and TANF Benefits after a Drug Conviction: A Survey of State Laws,” available at (last accessed December 2023).
  33. PREP Act, S. 3380, 118th Cong., 1st sess. (November 30, 2023), available at
  34. Office of U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, “Schatz Reintroduces Legislation To Remove Barriers To Higher Education For Americans With Criminal Records,” Press release, August 6, 2021, available at
  35. Clean Slate Act of 2023, H. 2930, 118th Cong., 1st sess. (April 27, 2023), available at
  36. Fresh Start Act of 2023, H. 2983, 118th Cong., 1st sess. (April 27, 2023), available at
  37. Akua Amaning, “Advancing Clean Slate: The Need for Automatic Record Clearance During the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Center for American Progress, June 25, 2020, available at
  38. Clean Slate Initiative, “Clean Slate in the States,” available at (last accessed December 2023).
  39. Sharon M. Dietrich, “PA Clean Slate: Delivering on Its Promises” (Philadelphia: Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, 2020), available at See also Lauren Gibbons, “Michigan automatic expungement: What convictions qualify, how to check,” Bridge Michigan, April 26, 2023, available at
  40. All of Us or None, “About: The Ban the Box Campaign,” available at (last accessed December 2023). See also Avery, Emsellem, and Lu, “Fair Chance Licensing Reform.”
  41. Sawyer, “Who’s helping the 1.9 million women released from prison and jails each year?”

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Akua Amaning

Director, Criminal Justice Reform


Women’s Initiative

The Women’s Initiative develops robust, progressive policies and solutions to ensure all women can participate in the economy and live healthy, productive lives.

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