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Despite “Ban the Box” Laws, Most Prisoners Still Unemployed a Year After Release

In July 2023, the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 3.6%, among the lowest levels seen in 60 years. With nearly two openings for everyone unemployed, all that most Americans need to get a job is to apply. Unless, of course, we’re talking about people out of prison a year or less. That group’s unemployment rate is a whopping 60%.

That’s why 34 states and over 150 cities nationwide have passed some form of “Ban the Box” legislation, forbidding employers from asking job applicants about their criminal record until later in the hiring process. In 2016, then-Pres. Barack Obama (D) also eliminated the question on employment applications for many federal government jobs.

But how effective has this been? Just because an employer prejudiced against convicts cannot screen out formerly incarcerated applicants during the first interview, chances are that they will still not want to hire an applicant weeks later after a criminal background check.

Yet there is nothing more important to ensure released prisoners do not return to prison or jail than a secure job. A RAND Institute analysis concluded that investing in educational programs for the incarcerated is the best way to ensure that they secure jobs upon release. Prisoners who participate in educational programs during incarceration are 43% less likely to recidivate. Thus, every dollar invested in prison education saves $4 to $5 in reincarceration costs.

Economist and criminologist Shawn D. Bushway estimated that 64% of unemployed men have been arrested and 46% have also been convicted. Two organizations are working to reincorporate the formerly incarcerated into a labor market flush with opportunities.

Persevere, a nonprofit active in nine states, works on “halting recidivism through technical training, offering software development courses to those recently freed from prison and those within three years of release.” It also provides “wraparound services” such as transportation, temporary housing and access to basic necessities. Its leadership reports that 93% of those who complete the program are placed in jobs and 85% are still employed a year later.

The other group, EX-incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO), is a Wisconsin nonprofit whose mission is to “restore formerly incarcerated people to full participation in the life of our communities.” Funded by grants and donations, the group lobbies local businesses “to warm up to second-chance hiring.”  


Sources: Brookings Institution, New York Times

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