There are nowhere near enough living wage jobs to go around in the United States; workers are trapped in low wage work and unable to make ends meet. It is even more difficult for those who have been incarcerated to find work that pays a living wage, as institutionalized barriers to employment limit the types of jobs available to those with conviction records.


This third report in the 2015-2016 Job Gap Economic Prosperity Series looks at the barriers those with conviction records face in finding high-paying jobs and attaining a measure of financial stability.

In many states and cities, both public and private employers can include a question on application materials requiring applicants to disclose whether or not they have a conviction record. While there is growing momentum to “Ban the Box,” in most cases these efforts only ban the box for public employment. Additionally, there are thousands of regulations across the country restricting or banning those who have been incarcerated from employment in specific occupations and industries. Commonly restricted fields include health care, law enforcement & security, and legal services – all industries that can provide relatively high pay and job stability.

For the 70 million adults with a serious misdemeanor or felony arrest or conviction record and the hundreds of thousands more each year released from prison, their record can be a life sentence of poverty and low wages.

Legislation banning employment in specific occupations only serves to make it more difficult for those with records to rebuild their lives after leaving prison.

On average, states have 123 mandatory bans and restrictions for would-be workers with felony convictions per state from employment in occupations or industries, from obtaining certain types of occupational licenses, and/or from obtaining certain types of business or property licenses. 10 states have more than 160 of these regulations, including 248 in Texas, 258 in Illinois, and 389 in Louisiana. Only nine states have fewer than 75 regulations.

Examples of restricted occupations include relatively high paying jobs like pharmacists, police officers, veterinarians, security guards, and secondary school teachers.

There are additional regulations for other types of offenses, and non-mandatory bans and restrictions. For example, while many states have begun decriminalizing marijuana and revisiting the severity of sentences for other drug-related crimes, state regulations that restrict employment for controlled substance crimes continue as barriers for many who have been caught up in the criminal justice system.

Besides being barred from many job opportunities, other related collateral consequences of having a conviction record, including restrictions from access to government-subsidized housing, food stamps, and other assistance programs. While not direct barriers to employment, these restrictions can make it even more difficult for those without good jobs to get by.

For the 630,000 prisoners released from state and federal prisons each year, these restrictions only exacerbate the struggle to make ends meet faced by workers in states across the country. With minimum wages falling far short of what a single adult needs to make ends meet, and not nearly enough jobs to go around that pay a living wage, these additional barriers can make it impossible for those who have been incarcerated to find a good paying job.

With disproportionate arrest rates and longer and harsher sentencing, people of color are more likely to be impacted by these barriers than are their white counterparts. Along with a resurgence of debtors’ prisons and the criminalization of poverty, these additional barriers serve to reinforce and continue the existing racial wealth gap, making it even more difficult for people of color to make ends meet.

There are a variety of tools that can give people with conviction records a fair shot at making ends meet. Ban the Box policies banning inquiries into conviction records on employment applications can help prevent discrimination in hiring; reviewing and removing mandatory bans on employment and licensing for specific occupations can broaden access to more types of jobs for those with records. Expanding safety net programs to those with records will also help those unable to find a living wage job to get by.

When those with convictions are released from prison after serving their time, they should not be consigned to a lifetime of low wages and poverty. Everyone should have the chance to make a better life for themselves and their families.


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