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Freedom to Achieve: Pathways and Practices for Economic Advancement After Incarceration

August 20, 2021

At a Glance

More than half a million people are released from U.S. prisons each year, and the majority are unable to find work due to underlying biases and systemic racism. This report argues that we must match the breadth and scale of the investments that support U.S. systems of incarceration by investing in a comprehensive and scalable approach to workforce development that connects returning citizens with jobs and equips them for long-term careers.

Lucretia Murphy Vice President
Lisa Soricone Senior Research Director 
Practices & Centers Topics

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population and more than one-quarter of its prisoners. For men and women reentering the workforce after incarceration, finding any kind of employment is difficult, and it’s nearly impossible for them to find jobs that pay family-supporting wages and offer opportunities for long-term economic advancement.

More than half a million people leave prison each year, and many of them are unable to find work—and that leads to recidivism. When formerly incarcerated people are excluded from quality employment, they are far more likely to return to prison than they would be if they were working. More than two-thirds of people who served time in jail—approximately 68 percent—are rearrested within three years of their release.

A growing number of private employers are beginning to step up and make an effort to recruit and hire people with criminal records. They are demonstrating that employment has the power to reset the trajectory that leads many formerly incarcerated individuals to end up back behind bars. These employers have proved that companies can find good workers who contribute to their organizations’ bottom lines when they invest in what are known as fair-chance hiring practices.

Unfortunately, the labor market disruption caused by COVID-19 has interrupted those promising developments. With nearly 9 million people looking for work, employers have been less compelled to “take a chance” on hiring people with criminal records.

Nonetheless, expanding investments in programs designed to foster reentry success remains an ethical and economic imperative. Taking into account all people with criminal records who are excluded from the economy, the loss of workers, taxpayers, and consumers results in an estimated loss of more than $78 billion in GDP per year.

We must match the breadth and scale of the investments that support our systems of incarceration, by investing in a comprehensive, scalable approach to workforce development that connects people with jobs and equips them for long-term careers.

This report focuses on two distinct but interrelated solution sets: 1) pivotal workforce development strategies that are based on best practices for helping people effectively transition into employment and prosper in the post-COVID economy, with examples of ways these models have been applied to programs for people who have been incarcerated, and 2) anti-racist strategies for ending disparities in workforce development and employment.

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