Policy Proposals

Increasing Employment for Individuals with Criminal Records

October 21, 2016
Employment & Wages


Low-skilled workers, particularly those with criminal records, have been most adversely affected by labor market changes in the last few decades.  Many policymakers recognize the urgency of increasing opportunity for these workers. However, recent legislative initiatives aimed at doing so have produced mixed results. 


To better help individuals with criminal records successfully navigate the low-skill labor market, the author offers five guiding principles for policymakers. These are: (1) increase availability of jobs for low-skill workers, through effective jobs programs, licensing reform, and tighter labor markets; (2) focus on building work readiness, by providing wrap-around services and effective job-training programs; (3) communicate work readiness to employers, by issuing high-quality certification for completion of training programs and apprenticeships; (4) reduce the cost of hiring people with criminal records; and (5) weigh the impact of employer regulations that might have unintended consequences.


Workers with criminal records, in particular black and Hispanic males with criminal records, face many labor market challenges—over and above the challenges faced by the larger population of low-skilled workers. Finding ways to improve employment outcomes for individuals with criminal records is an urgent priority with implications for public safety, the economy, and families of those with records. 

New evidence documenting unintended negative consequences of one recent attempt to address this concern—Ban the Box laws that delay employer access to information about applicants—should be considered as the policy discussion moves forward. As policymakers continue efforts to address employment among workers with criminal records, it is imperative that they begin with an understanding of how employers interact with job applicants who have criminal records. Accordingly, a multi-pronged approach—inclusive of effective policies aimed at building workers’ skills, communicating their work-readiness to employers, and promoting robust labor markets for low-skilled workers—is necessary for improving employment outcomes for workers with criminal records.