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Barriers to ex-offender employment could cost the nation at least $57 billion

November 30, 2010 | 11:08 am

Jail
It's tough for many Americans to find work right now, but it's even harder for those with a criminal record, according to a story in Tuesday's L.A. Times. But that doesn't affect just those who are out of work. It could also affect the nation's economy as a whole -- by anywhere from $57 to $65 billion.

That's according to a study out this month from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, by senior economist John Schmitt.

There were between 5.4 million and 6.1 million ex-prisoners (people who have been in jail) in the U.S. in 2008 and between 12.3 million and 13.9 million ex-felons (people who have been in prison), Schmitt said. He calculated that ex-offenders' barriers to employment lowers the nation's employment on average by 1.5 million to 1.7 million workers. Multiply that number by the average output that these workers would be putting into the economy, if they were employed, and the loss totals at least $57 billion, he said.

This figure is growing as more of the hundreds of thousands of people put into jail during the War on Drugs in the 1980s and 1990s are released.

"We are putting a lot of people in jail, particularly for nonviolent offenses, and it costs us a ton of money," Schmitt said. "Beyond that, it has long-term effects on the labor market."

In case you're skeptical that a criminal record hurts employment prospects, check out this landmark 2003 study by sociologist Devah Pager. She paired identically qualified black and white men looking for jobs, assigning one member a criminal record as they applied for jobs. A criminal record reduced the likelihood of a job callback by 50% in the white population. Blacks fared even worse: Those with criminal records only got a callback 5% of the time.

“Clearly, the results here demonstrate that criminal records close doors in employment situations,” Pager wrote. “Many employers seem to use the information as a screening mechanism, without attempting to probe deeper into the possible context or complexities of the situation.”

Stigma isn't the only barrier. Many trades and professions bar or limit the hiring of people with felony convictions. They include barbers, teachers and, not surprisingly, bail bondsman. A Stanford University student details some of the job limitations in a chart here.

Bottom line: If you're already having a hard time paying the rent, stealing that loaf of bread for dinner probably isn't going to help you return to the job market.

-- Alana Semuels

Photo: Jail, not a good place to look for a job. Credit: chubibaoka via Flickr

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