Director, Global Employment Policy & Special Initiatives, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
May 25, 2022
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.
Americans in prison
Americans on probation or parole
1 in 3
Adults that have a criminal record
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.
Percentage of convictions that do not lead to prison sentences
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.
Percent of returning citizens jobless from time to time 4 years after release
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.
HR leaders who say that second chance hires perform the same or better than other employees
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
Research: The Business Case for Second Chance Hiring
Case Study: America’s Hidden Workforce
Recent Chamber Events:
- Equality of Opportunity in Action Series: Advancing Second Chance Hiring
- Equality of Opportunity in Action Series: The Power of a Second Chance
- Workforce: A Call to Action Summit: Fixing the U.S. Workforce Gap Involves Second Chances, Preparation, and Partnerships
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 is the Director of Global Employment Policy & Special Initiatives. Her work on the labor shortage has been cited in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Associated Press.