Update to ‘News You Can Use: Research Roundup for Re-Entry Advocates’

A former prisoner who is now in search of work prepares to meet with a counselor at a skills training center in Compton, California, November 2014.

In 2018, the Center for American Progress, along with the National Employment Law Project and Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, developed a resource tool for reentry advocates. The fact sheet summarized “key findings of recent research highlighting the far-reaching consequences for individuals, families, communities, and the broader economy, as well as studies exploring the effects of policies to unlock opportunity for people with records and their families.” Since then, additional information and resources have been made available to better understand the collateral consequences of criminal records for justice-involved individuals and advancements in reentry efforts. This guide provides updated information as well as links to additional resources for further insight.

Barriers to opportunity by the numbers

  • Nearly 9 in 10 employers use background checks in hiring; an estimated 4 in 5 landlords use background checks on prospective tenants; and more than 3 in 5 colleges and universities use background checks in admissions.
  • Between 60 percent and 75 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals remain unemployed one year after their release.
  • Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, formerly incarcerated people in the United States faced a 27 percent unemployment rate—nearly five times higher than the unemployment rate of the general public and eclipsing the highest level of general unemployment ever recorded in the country during the Great Depression.
  • Formerly incarcerated men are employed for nine fewer weeks per year on average and earn 40 percent less than otherwise similar never-incarcerated men, resulting in nearly $179,000 in lost earnings by age 48.
  • An applicant with a criminal record is 50 percent to 63 percent less likely to get a callback or job offer than an identical applicant without a record—and this effective hiring penalty increases twofold for black applicants compared with white applicants.
  • Employees with criminal records in the private sector, however, have longer average tenures than employees without records, are less likely to leave voluntarily, and are no more likely to be terminated involuntarily.
  • A study of the U.S. military found that individuals with felony records were promoted more rapidly and to higher ranks than others and were no more likely to be discharged for negative reasons than individuals without records.
  • Individuals’ net worth decreases by an average of more than $47,500 in the years after incarceration—after adjusting for inflation—and the incarceration of a family member is associated with a 3 percent decrease in a family’s assets.
  • After incarceration, a person’s probability of homeownership drops more than 45 percent relative to their never-incarcerated peers—even though the two groups’ homeownership probabilities were similar prior to incarceration.

Effects on the workforce and economy

  • The total estimated cost burden of incarceration in the United States is more than $1 trillion per year—nearly 6 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and 11 times the amount spent on corrections. This estimate takes into account social and economic costs, such as foregone wages, adverse health effects, and increased infant mortality.
  • The U.S. workforce was short between 1.7 million and 1.9 million workers in 2014 due to the adverse employment effects of felony conviction and incarceration—roughly equivalent to a 0.9 to 1.0 percentage-point reduction in the overall employment rate.
  • The U.S. economy loses $78 billion to $87 billion in GDP each year due to these adverse effects on employment alone.
  • If not for decades of mass incarceration, the poverty rate would be 20 percent lower. That would translate into 8.1 million fewer people in poverty in 2016.
  • Raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020, which would increase pay and economic opportunity—particularly for disadvantaged groups such as individuals with records—would result in societal benefits of $8 billion to $17 billion.
  • If wage and employment levels of the 1980s had continued through the late 1990s, prison admission rates for men would have been 15 percent to 20 percent lower.

Effects on state budgets

  • If states’ spending on corrections had stayed the same since the mid-1980s in inflation-adjusted terms, states would have an additional $28 billion each year to put toward priorities such as education and infrastructure.
  • State corrections spending increased by 141 percent between 1986 and 2013, adjusting for inflation, compared with much smaller increases of 69 percent and 5.6 percent, respectively, for K-12 and higher education over the same time span—figures that do not even account for enrollment increases.
  • Reducing the incarceration rate of nonviolent offenders would save state governments an estimated $8.7 billion and local governments an estimated $8.2 billion each year, after adjusting for inflation.
  • Corrections spending declined in 13 of the 20 states that reported reducing their prison populations between 2010 and 2015, saving taxpayers a total of $1.6 billion.

Effects on children and families

  • About 8 million minor children in the United States—1 in 28—have a parent behind bars, up from 1 in 125 just a quarter-century ago. More than 1 in 9 African American children has an incarcerated parent, a rate that has quadrupled in the last 25 years. Children with incarcerated parents are more likely to experience school dropout; speech problems or learning disabilities; developmental delays or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; physical health problems; and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression—even after controlling for environmental factors, race, and other characteristics.
  • Nearly one-half of U.S. children—between 33 million and 36.5 million minors—have at least one parent with a criminal record. The barriers associated with a parent’s record can severely undermine a child’s life chances, hampering cognitive development, school performance, educational attainment, and even employment outcomes in adulthood.
  • Children who have had a parent incarcerated are nearly four to six times more likely to be expelled or suspended from school than children who have not.
  • The average child’s family income fell 22 percent when their father was placed behind bars compared with the preceding year—and remained 15 percent lower in the year after release.
  • Nearly 2 in 3 families with an incarcerated family member—70 percent of whom were caring for minor children—were unable to meet basic needs such as food and housing due to the financial burden of incarceration.

Desistance and recidivism

  • Individuals who remain crime-free three to four years after a nonviolent conviction are no more likely to recidivate than the general population is to be arrested.
  • Individuals who were employed two months after re-entry were about half as likely to recidivate as those who were unemployed. And among employed re-entrants, individuals who earned higher wages—more than $10 per hour in 2008—were half as likely to recidivate as those who earned low wages, or less than $7 per hour in 2008.

Effects of specific remedies

Education behind bars

  • Inmates who participated in correctional education were 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who did not, and every dollar spent on prison education saves an estimated $4 to $5 in incarceration costs during the three years after an individual’s release.
  • Post-release employment rates were 13 percent higher for individuals who participated in academic or vocational education programs while behind bars—and 28 percent higher for those who participated in vocational training.

Expungement and other record-clearing initiatives

  • Research from Michigan finds that in just the first year after sealing their criminal records, individuals saw a 23 percent increase in their average quarterly wages, a 13 percent increase in the likelihood of being employed, and a 23 percent increase in the likelihood of making at least $100 per week. The study also shows—contrary to public objection of record-clearing initiatives—that those who are able to clear their records have extremely low subsequent crime rates. Ninety-nine percent of these individuals are not convicted of any felony, 99.4 percent are not convicted of any violent crime, and 96 percent are not convicted of any crime at all within five years of sealing their criminal records.
  • Only a small number of people clear their criminal records through a court petition process. The same Michigan study finds that only 6.5 percent of those who are legally eligible do so within five years of eligibility.
  • Evidence from record-sealing in Canada shows that only a very small percentage of pardons are revoked due to re-offense or false application.
  • Research on Alameda County, California, found that within three years of record-clearing, participants’ average annual earnings grew from $4,000 below their cohort’s baseline to $2,000 above it—an increase equivalent to $6,000, or about one-third of earnings.
  • A benefit-cost study of a limited number of record expungement recipients in Santa Clara County, California, estimates the net benefits of expungement at nearly $5,800 per recipient per year, even with a petition-based process. This estimate factors in governmental process and administrative costs in the first year, which could be considerably reduced through automation.
  • One study found that after automation, the cost per clearance is approximately 5 cents, compared with the costs per application, which can be thousands of dollars through a petition-based expungement model (this estimate includes the court’s and petitioner’s time). Additionally, these cost comparisons do not take into account all the public and individual economic benefits that will be incurred as more people gain expungement.
  • In 2018, Pennsylvania became the first state in the nation to pass groundbreaking “clean slate” legislation that automates the record-clearing process for qualifying records once someone has remained crime free for a certain period of time. The bipartisan measure was passed nearly unanimously in both chambers of the state’s legislature and has led to the sealing of more than 34 million criminal records, helping 1 million Pennsylvanians since the law took effect in June 2019. Utah also enacted bipartisan clean slate legislation in 2019 following a unanimous vote in the legislature, and California enacted a version of automatic record-clearing that will apply to qualifying records starting in 2021. A growing number of states—including Michigan, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington state, and North Carolina—have introduced, passed, or are advancing automatic record-clearing measures of their own.
  • Clean slate laws have gained widespread support in recent years. One poll conducted by GBAO Strategies and Center for American Progress finds that 70 percent of Americans across party lines are in support of state legislation that allows for automatic clearance of a qualified criminal record. Another poll finds that 71 percent of Americans are in support of clean slate automatic record clearance at the federal level.

Occupational licensing reform

  • More than 45,000 federal and state statutes and regulations impose disqualifications or disadvantages on individuals with a conviction in the United States.
  • The average state has 56 occupational and 43 business licensing laws with mandatory restrictions against hiring people with felony convictions. More than 20 states have no standards requiring the conviction record to be relevant to the occupational licensing—and a license board may deny an applicant a license based solely on its discretion.
  • This leaves workers with convictions without access to an enormous number of well-paying jobs: More than 1 in 4 U.S. workers requires a license or certification for their occupation—a fivefold increase from the 1950s. Furthermore, 6 of the 10 fastest-growing professions—including health care support and personal care—are heavily licensed.
  • Licensing results in 10 percent to 15 percent higher wages. Working-age adults with less than a high school diploma were nearly twice as likely to be employed if they held a license than those who did not.

Additional resources

News You Can Use: Research Roundup for Re-Entry Advocates”| A resource tool for reentry advocates, developed by the Center for American Progress in conjunction with the National Employment Law Project and Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.

National Employment Law Project | A national organization dedicated to the advancement of policies that expand access to job opportunities and support for low-wage and unemployed workers.

Community Legal Services of Philadelphia | An organization that provides free civil legal assistance to low-income individuals in the Philadelphia region and helped to pass Pennsylvania’s automatic record clearance law.

Expungement of Criminal Convictions: An Empirical Study” | A Harvard Law Review article on the use of record expungement as a key component of modern criminal justice reform efforts.

Out of Prison & Out of Work: Unemployment among formerly incarcerated people” | A Prison Policy Initiative report on the state of unemployment among formerly incarcerated people with recommended policies to help provide gainful employment to justice-involved individuals.

A Clean Slate in the Age of Coronavirus”| An op-ed from Inside Sources that argues for the growing need for automatic record clearance measures amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Mitigating the Impacts of a Criminal Record on Young Adults in the U.S.” | A Center for American Progress and Generation Progress column on the collateral consequences of a criminal record for young adults.

Criminal Records Create Cycles of Multigenerational Poverty” | A Center for American Progress column on the multigenerational impact of a criminal record.

Expunging and Sealing Criminal Records: How Jurisdictions Can Expand Access to Second Chances” | A Center for American Progress fact sheet on how jurisdictions can expand access to second chances by expunging and sealing criminal records.

Clemency 101: How Sentences Can Be Pardoned or Commuted” | A Center for American Progress fact sheet on the use of clemency measures to pardon or commute a sentence.

Kenny Lo is a research associate for the Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress. Akua Amaning is an associate director for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center.