Stephanie Ferguson Senior Manager, Employment Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Published

May 25, 2022

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Right now, we have 11.5 million jobs open in the U.S., yet only around 6 million unemployed workers. Moreover, labor force participation does not yet match what it was before the pandemic. 

Our America Works Data Center captures these national workforce trends. This page dives deep into the latest data showing how a lack of opportunity for those with a criminal record is impacting workforce participation and exacerbating the worker shortage crisis in the wake of the pandemic.  

More people in prison means less people working.

  • 2M
    Americans in prison
  • 4.5M
    Americans on probation or parole
  • 1 in 3
    Adults that have a criminal record
  • 77M
    Americans with a criminal record

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Nearly 2 million Americans are incarcerated in the U.S. correctional system with an additional 4.5 million on probation or on parole at any time.

The majority of individuals in prison are working aged men, a demographic whose labor force participation rate has been declining for years. The high rate of incarceration is a significant barrier to increasing our labor force participation rate.

  • 25%
    Percentage of convictions that do not lead to prison sentences
  • 600,000
    Individuals released from incarceration every year

More astonishing is the impact a criminal record can have on a person’s employment prospects. Every year, nearly 600,000 individuals are released from incarceration. At the same time, almost 25% of convictions do not lead to prison sentences. In total, 77 million Americans have a criminal record—an unfortunate fact as having a criminal record makes it harder to find employment. For some job requirements, individuals with a criminal record are excluded completely.

Stable jobs for the formerly incarcerated reduce recidivism and benefit society.

In a study of recently released prisoners, the Bureau of Justice found that 81.9% will be arrested again within 10 years after their release. However, other studies have shown that employment directly correlates with decreased instances of recidivism, or when someone convicted of a crime re-offends. Moreover, high quality, stable jobs are most likely to reduce recidivism.

Employing individuals with criminal records benefits society. Workers are more likely to achieve stability and less likely to return to prison, and businesses gain access to an often-overlooked labor pool. Giving returning citizens a second chance can also lead to reduced employee turnover. At the same time, crime is reduced while employment rates increase, directly supporting a more prosperous society.

  • 60%
    Percent of returning citizens jobless from time to time 4 years after release
  • 15%
    Unemployment of general population at peak of pandemic unemployment

Formerly incarcerated individuals experience extreme rates of unemployment, hovering around six out of every ten people being jobless from the time of release to four years after release. Compare this rate to the general population, whose peak unemployment rate during the pandemic reached 15%.

Second chance hires can help industries suffering from labor shortages.

  • 85%
    HR leaders who say that second chance hires perform the same or better than other employees
  • 81%
    Business leaders who say that second chance hires perform the same or better than other employees

While certain limitations around hiring the formerly incarcerated to exist, it is important for businesses to know that second chance hiring is taking place around the country, with positive outcomes. Data from SHRM shows that 85% of human resources leaders and 81% of business leaders say that second chance hires perform the same or better than other employees.

There are a few industries where second chance hiring can be critical. In the months leading to admission to federal prison, formerly incarcerated individuals are most likely to have worked in administrative support, or in waste management and remediation services. They also have relatively large representation in labor-intensive and customer-facing professions, specifically in construction and hospitality.

While large shifts occur immediately after release, most individuals will return to those same sectors as the years go on. Additional data shows that years after release, employment for the formerly incarcerated in the accommodation and food services, health care and social assistance, and transportation and warehousing sectors drops by two percentage points. These also happen to be some of the same sectors that are experiencing the most severe impacts from the worker shortage crisis.

The U.S. Chamber and Chamber Foundation’s America Works Initiative presents solutions to the labor shortage crisis stifling our nation’s economic growth. There is no singular solution. Rather, business and government must work together to understand the challenges facing specific populations and industries, and ways to overcome those obstacles.

Additional Second Chance Hiring Resources

Guide:Employer Guide to Second Chance Hiring Tax Credits and Programs

Research:The Business Case for Second Chance Hiring

Case Study:America’s Hidden Workforce

Recent Chamber Events:

For Small Businesses:

Find more workforce data

Visit our other data deep dives covering the current labor shortage crisis and the impact of childcare challenges on our workforce.

About the authors

Stephanie Ferguson

Senior Manager, Employment Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce