Finding employment after being incarcerated can be an important step in a former inmate's reintegration into the community. Yet this is frequently one of the most difficult tasks former offenders undertake. Survey results suggest that between 60 and 75 percent of ex-offenders are jobless up to a year after release. 
Most employers are reluctant to hire applicants with criminal records. NIJ-funded research has shown that most employers are reluctant to hire applicants with criminal records. In a study conducted in New York City, for example, a criminal record reduced the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent (28 percent for applicants without a criminal record versus 15 percent of applicants with). The negative effect of a criminal record was substantially larger for black applicants. The penalty for having a criminal record suffered by white applicants was approximately half the size of the penalty for black applicants with a criminal record.
Employment prospects improve when applicants interact with the hiring manager. In the New York City study, employment prospects for applicants with criminal records improved when applicants had an opportunity to interact with the hiring manager, particularly when these interactions elicited sympathetic responses from the manager. Although individual characteristics of employers were significant, the researchers concluded that personal interaction between the applicant and prospective employer was in itself a key factor in a successful hiring.
Researchers were competitively awarded funds to conduct a randomized field experiment in Milwaukee to identify the barriers that former offenders face when seeking employment shortly after their release from prison. Pager and her colleague Bruce Western of Harvard University were awarded funds to replicate the study in New York City. Both studies produced similar results.
The researchers sought to determine how employers responded to applicants who were equally qualified but varied by race, ethnicity and criminal record (assigned randomly by the researchers). Matched teams of testers applied for hundreds of entry-level jobs. Testers were matched according to a number of criteria (e.g., verbal skills, physical attractiveness and interaction styles). They were assigned fictitious resumes and passed a common training program to ensure uniform behavior in the interviews.
About This Article
The work described in this article was supported by NIJ awards 2002-IJ-CX-0002 to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and to Princeton University.
This article is based on the grantee reports "The Mark of a Criminal Record" (pdf, 250 pages) by Devah Pager and "Investigating Prisoner Reentry: The Impact of Conviction Status on the Employment Prospects of Young Men" (pdf, 136 pages) by Devah Pager and Bruce Western.
[note 1] See Petersilia, J., When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2003; Travis, J., But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry, Washington D.C.: Urban Institute Press, 2005.
[note 2], [note 3] Pager, D., and B. Western, "Investigating Prisoner Reentry: The Impact of Conviction Status on the Employment Prospects of Young Men" (pdf, 136 pages), Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, October 2009, NCJ 228584. The report includes several related articles published in academic journals.