The U.S. unemployment rate is hovering near lows unseen since the 1960s. A few months ago, there were roughly two job openings for every unemployed person in the country. Many standard economic models suggest that almost everyone who wants a job has a job.
Yet the broad group of Americans with records of imprisonment or arrests — a population disproportionately male and Black — have remarkably high jobless rates. Over 60 percent of those leaving prison are unemployed a year later, seeking work but not finding it.
That harsh reality has endured even as the social upheaval after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 gave a boost to a “second-chance hiring” movement in corporate America aimed at hiring candidates with criminal records. And the gap exists even as unemployment for minority groups overall is near record lows.
Many states have “ban the box” laws barring initial job applications from asking if candidates have a criminal history. But a prison record can block progress after interviews or background checks — especially for convictions more serious than nonviolent drug offenses, which have undergone a more sympathetic public reappraisal in recent years.
For economic policymakers, a persistent demand for labor paired with a persistent lack of work for many former prisoners presents an awkward conundrum: A wide swath of citizens have re-entered society — after a quadrupling of the U.S. incarceration rate over 40 years — but the nation’s economic engine is not sure what to with them.
“These are people that are trying to compete in the legal labor market,” said Shawn D. Bushway, an economist and criminologist at the RAND Corporation, who estimates that 64 percent of unemployed men have been arrested and that 46 percent have been convicted. “You can’t say, ‘Well, these people are just lazy’ or ‘These people really don’t really want to work.’”
In a research paper, Mr. Bushway and his co-authors found that when former prisoners do land a job, “they earn significantly less than their counterparts without criminal history records, making the middle class ever less reachable for unemployed men” in this cohort.
One challenge is a longstanding presumption that people with criminal records are more likely to be difficult, untrustworthy or unreliable employees. DeAnna Hoskins, the president of JustLeadershipUSA, a nonprofit group focused on decreasing incarceration, said she challenged that concern as overblown. Moreover, she said, locking former prisoners out of the job market can foster “survival crime” by people looking to make ends meet.
One way shown to stem recidivism — a relapse into criminal behavior — is deepening investments in prison education so former prisoners re-enter society with more demonstrable, valuable skills.
According to a RAND analysis, incarcerated people who take part in education programs are 43 percent less likely than others to be incarcerated again, and for every dollar spent on prison education, the government saves $4 to $5 in reimprisonment costs.
Last year, a chapter of the White House Council of Economic Advisers’ Economic Report of the President was dedicated, in part, to “substantial evidence of labor force discrimination against formerly incarcerated people.” The Biden administration announced that the Justice and Labor Departments would devote $145 million over two years to job training and re-entry services for federal prisoners.
Mr. Bushway pointed to another approach: broader government-sponsored jobs programs for those leaving incarceration. Such programs existed more widely at the federal level before the tough-on-crime movement of the 1980s, providing incentives like wage subsidies for businesses hiring workers with criminal records.
But Mr. Bushway and Ms. Hoskins said any consequential changes were likely to need support from and coordination with states and cities. Some small but ambitious efforts are underway.
In May 2016, Jabarre Jarrett of Ripley, Tenn., a small town about 15 miles east of the Mississippi River, got a call from his sister. She told Mr. Jarrett, then 27, that her boyfriend had assaulted her. Frustrated and angry, Mr. Jarrett drove to see her. A verbal altercation with the man, who was armed, turned physical, and Mr. Jarrett, also armed, fatally shot him.
Mr. Jarrett pleaded guilty to a manslaughter charge and was given a 12-year sentence. Released in 2021 after his term was reduced for good conduct, he found that he was still paying for his crime, in a literal sense.
Housing was hard to get. Mr. Jarrett owed child support. And despite a vibrant labor market, he struggled to piece together a living, finding employers hesitant to offer him full-time work that paid enough to cover his bills.
“One night somebody from my past called me, man, and they offered me an opportunity to get back in the game,” he said — with options like “running scams, selling drugs, you name it.”
One reason he resisted, Mr. Jarrett said, was his decision a few weeks earlier to sign up for a program called Persevere, out of curiosity.
Persevere, a nonprofit group funded by federal grants, private donations and state partnerships, focuses on halting recidivism in part through technical job training, offering software development courses to those recently freed from prison and those within three years of release. It pairs that effort with “wraparound services” — including mentorship, transportation, temporary housing and access to basic necessities — to address financial and mental health needs.
For Mr. Jarrett, that network helped solidify a life change. When he got off the phone call with the old friend, he called a mental health counselor at Persevere.
“I said, ‘Man, is this real?’” he recalled. “I told him, ‘I got child support, I just lost another job, and somebody offered me an opportunity to make money right now, and I want to turn it down so bad, but I don’t have no hope.’” The counselor talked him through the moment and discussed less risky ways to get through the next months.
In September, after his yearlong training period, Mr. Jarrett became a full-time web developer for Persevere itself, making about $55,000 a year — a stroke of luck, he said, until he builds enough experience for a more senior role at a private-sector employer.
Persevere is relatively small (active in six states) and rare in its design. Yet its program claims extraordinary success compared with conventional approaches.
By many measures, over 60 percent of formerly incarcerated people are arrested or convicted again. Executives at Persevere report recidivism in the single digits among participants who complete its program, with 93 percent placed in jobs and a 85 percent retention rate, defined as still working a year later.
“We’re working with regular people who made a very big mistake, so anything that I can do to help them live a fruitful, peaceful, good life is what I want to do,” said Julie Landers, a program manager at Persevere in the Atlanta area.
If neither employers nor governments “roll the dice” on the millions sentenced for serious crimes, Ms. Landers argued, “we’re going to get what we’ve always gotten” — cycles of poverty and criminality — “and that’s the definition of insanity.”
Pushing for Change
Dant’e Cottingham got a life sentence at 17 for first-degree intentional homicide in the killing of another man and served 27 years. While in prison, he completed a paralegal program. As a job seeker afterward, he battled the stigma of a criminal record — an obstacle he is trying to help others overcome.
While working at a couple of minimum-wage restaurant jobs in Wisconsin after his release last year, he volunteered as an organizer for EXPO — EX-incarcerated People Organizing — a nonprofit group, mainly funded by grants and donations, that aims to “restore formerly incarcerated people to full participation in the life of our communities.”
Now he works full time for the group, meeting with local businesses to persuade them to take on people with criminal records. He also works for another group, Project WisHope, as a peer support specialist, using his experience to counsel currently and formerly incarcerated people.
It can still feel like a minor victory “just getting somebody an interview,” Mr. Cottingham said, with only two or three companies typically showing preliminary interest in anyone with a serious record.
“I run into some doors, but I keep talking, I keep trying, I keep setting up meetings to have the discussion,” he said. “It’s not easy, though.”
Ed Hennings, who started a Milwaukee-based trucking company in 2016, sees things from two perspectives: as a formerly imprisoned person and as an employer.
Mr. Hennings served 20 years in prison for reckless homicide in a confrontation he and his uncle had with another man. Even though he mostly hires formerly incarcerated men — at least 20 so far — he candidly tells some candidates that he has limited “wiggle room to decipher whether you changed or not.” Still, Mr. Hennings, 51, is quick to add that he has been frustrated by employers that use those circumstances as a blanket excuse.
“I understand that it takes a little more work to try to decipher all of that, but I know from hiring people myself that you just have to be on your judgment game,” he said. “There are some people that come home that are just not ready to change — true enough — but there’s a large portion that are ready to change, given the opportunity.”
In addition to greater educational opportunities before release, he thinks giving employers incentives like subsidies to do what they otherwise would not may be among the few solutions that stick, even though it is a tough political hurdle.
“It’s hard for them not to look at you a certain way and still hard for them to get over that stigma,” Mr. Hennings said. “And that’s part of the conditioning and culture of American society.”