Statistics show that an estimated 46 percent of unemployed men in the United States have been convicted of a crime by the age of 35 while 64 percent of them have been arrested by the same age, with the rates varying only slightly by race and ethnicity, according to a study released by RAND Corporation and published by the journal Science Advances.
“Employers need to understand that one big reason they cannot find the workers they need is too often they exclude those who have had involvement with the criminal justice system,” Shawn Bushway, the study’s lead author, stated in a news release. “Employers need to reconsider their protocols about how to respond when candidates have some type of criminal history.”
The study used information from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (1997) and found American men between the ages of 30–38 who were unemployed in 2017 had high levels of involvement with the criminal justice system. Most were arrested at least once, almost 40 percent were convicted at least once, and more than 20 percent were incarcerated at least once.
Special Challenges Facing the Unemployed
While previous research has documented unemployment among those who have been incarcerated, the RAND study is the first to estimate the incidence of criminal histories among unemployed American men. The findings suggest employment services should focus more on the special challenges facing the unemployed who have criminal history records.
The main lesson from the study is that unemployment services need to do more to help people cope with their criminal histories. Researchers also said that efforts to bar employers from asking about criminal histories on job applications such as “Ban-the-Box” laws are unlikely to have a major impact on helping unemployed men with criminal records.
Efforts to help ex-offenders reenter the workforce such as “Ban the Box” may not have much impact because employers have easy access to criminal records of candidates through commercial databases and routinely review those records as a part of background checks done before new employees are hired, even if the question is left off job applications.
A New Focus on Criminal History of the Unemployed
“Most government programs focus on providing the unemployed with new skills in order to get them into the workforce,” said Bushway. “But if you only focus on skills development, you are missing a big part of the problem. The unemployment system almost never looks at the role that criminal history plays in keeping people out of the workforce.”
Employers need to reconsider how they view the risks posed by candidates with criminal records. New prediction models that seek to understand the risk of recidivism – the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend – among people who apply for jobs could help demonstrate the true relative risk of job candidates who have criminal records.
“Most employers believe that most people with criminal histories will commit offenses again,” Bushway explained in the news release. “But that is not the case. And the risk of reoffending drops dramatically as people spend more time free in the community without a new conviction. Employers need to adopt a more nuanced approach to the issue.”
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