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Literature Review

Ex-Offenders, Race, and Employment

There are many reasons that ex-offenders are often unable to find or maintain steady employment, ranging from individual to more structural factors. As a group, more than two in five prisoners lack a high school diploma or equivalent (Harlow, 2003), which contributes to high rates of unemployment and low-wage or temporary work. In addition to low educational attainment, in many US states, convicted felons are outright barred from working in various industries (Rodriguez & Emsellem, 2011). Even without stated policies of exclusion, there are subtle ways that employers filter out applicants with criminal records. For example, one study of employer attitudes and practices in Los Angeles, California (n = 619), found that 40 % of respondents were unwilling to hire an ex-offender, and only 20 % were willing to accept ex-offenders’ applications (Holzer et al., 2007). Moreover, the same study revealed that a large percentage of employers were more willing to hire individuals with other barriers in their work history, such as former or current welfare recipients and those with limited employment histories.

People of color, even with similar qualifications as white applicants, are also less likely to secure an interview or employment. For instance, Bertrand and Mullainathan (2004) argue that a racial/ethnic-sounding name on an equally qualified resume may bias a potential employer against an initial interview. As such, the intersection of race and a criminal record makes it particularly challenging for formerly incarcerated people of color to obtain a job interview, let alone be hired. The intersection of race and criminal record in forming barriers to employment is empirically supported. For example, Decker et al. (2014) study found that the odds of being contacted for a job interview for similarly qualified formerly incarcerated individuals were 125 % lower for African American men and 18 % lower for Hispanic men compared to white men. Similarly, Pager’s (2007) study of employment and racial bias found that 14 % of nonoffending African

Americans received a “callback” following an interview, compared to 17 % of similarly qualified whites that had a criminal record.

The exclusion of formerly incarcerated individuals from legal employment often perpetuates further contact with the criminal justice system, as secure employment decreases the odds of recidivism (National Research Council, 2007). For example, one study of 6561 offenders returning to five metropolitan cities in the Midwest over 5 years found that unemployed ex-offenders were 1.5 times more likely to recidivate than an ex-offender who was employed (Lockwood, Nally, Ho, & Knutson, 2012). This study also found that those who were African American, younger, and less educated had higher risk factors for recidivism. However, a study in Florida found that while employment postponed the average time to recidivism, it did not reduce the overall odds of reoffending at 5 years postrelease (Tripodi, Kim, & Bender, 2010). Although the relationship between employment and recidivism may be moderated by additional factors such as substance abuse and homelessness, job preparation training and education toward employability are nevertheless a major focus of adult reentry programming in the voluntary sector.

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