Barriers to Jobs Even When Not Behind Bars

Tens of thousands of legal restrictions limit job options for formerly incarcerated students who got college degrees and certificates in hopes of gaining a new lease on life.

December 15, 2021
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Rudy Carey completed more than 200 credit hours of coursework at Northern Virginia Community College after he was released from prison in 2007 and got certification as a substance abuse and rehabilitation counselor. He found work as a counselor at a substance abuse treatment center after first completing a rehabilitation program for drug addiction.

His new employer valued the personal experience he brought to the work, but Carey was let go in his fifth year on the job after new managers at the center became concerned that employing Carey was illegal. Virginia law bars people convicted of 176 different “barrier crimes” from working as drug counselors, according to a lawsuit Carey filed in September to overturn the law.

Carey spent three years in prison after striking a police officer during an arrest. The law prohibits people convicted of certain crimes—including assault and battery of an official, robbery, and prostitution—from working as drug abuse counselors or in other “direct care position” jobs with responsibility for “treatment, case management, health, safety, development, or well-being of an individual receiving services.”

Virginia is not alone in mandating such bans. Every state in the country has laws that restrict job options for people with criminal records, as does the federal government, according to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm.

“People change,” said Andrew Ward, an attorney representing Carey at the Institute for Justice. “Laws that restrict people working have to be rational, and it’s not rational to judge people like Rudy for who he was 17 years ago. People shouldn’t be denied the right to work because of irrelevant criminal convictions.”

With his chosen career closed off to him, Carey now works as a long-haul trucker.

“I just kind of look at myself as one person crying out in the wilderness,” Carey said. “If the law changes and it helps people behind me, hey, my job is done. Nothing good has to happen for me per se, but just to know that what I’ve done has impacted someone else’s life, that’s my calling.”

There are at least 40,000 federal, state and local restrictions across the country, known as “collateral consequences,” that prevent formerly incarcerated people from working in certain jobs and also from accessing various services and opportunities, according to reporting by The Marshall Project, which focuses on criminal justice issues and employs currently and formerly incarcerated reporters. Some of the laws even ban former prisoners from securing public assistance benefits or living in public housing.

Most of these laws—72 percent—limit people with past convictions from working in certain jobs. The most commonly restricted fields include health care, public service and education, according to a 2021 report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center. The laws range widely, however, and bar people with a conviction history in some states from becoming cosmetologists, manicurists and barbers. These restrictions can prevent formerly incarcerated people from pursuing their fields of choice by denying them licensure for specific careers, forcing them to undergo background checks or prove they’re rehabilitated, or making it illegal for certain types of employers to hire them.

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A 2018 analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative found that the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated Americans is 27 percent and even higher (30 percent) among those in their first two years out of prison. The national unemployment rate is about 4 percent. The lost wages due to unemployment doesn’t just hurt the former prisoners, however—they also have an impact on the larger society, according to a 2020 report by the Institute for Justice. The report cites a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which estimated that in 2014 these employment restrictions cost the national economy $87 billion in annual gross domestic product.

Meanwhile, studies have shown that incarcerated people who participate in prison education programs have a 43 percent lower recidivism rate than their peers, according to research from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Only 14 percent of incarcerated people who earn an associate degree and 5.6 percent who earn a bachelor’s degree return to prison.

“Sometimes we hear from students that they went all the way through a program [and] nobody told them that there was going to be some kind of background check before they did their field experience, and then they have to stop and change their major,” said Bradley Custer, a senior higher education policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. “There has to be good information at the very front of any program that you are in a major where you may face barriers and you’re in a program that leads to a specific career field that may have requirements.”

The legal obstacles make it difficult for colleges, universities and vocational programs to prepare incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students for the job market.

Advocates for incarcerated students say colleges sometimes exacerbate state restrictions. For instance, some college programs, especially in fields such as teaching or nursing, have responded to these laws by refusing to enroll formerly incarcerated students to prevent them from pursuing credentials that may not lead to jobs, said Jessica Neptune, director of national engagement at the Bard Prison Initiative, a liberal arts degree program for incarcerated students at Bard College in New York.

“Schools should not dupe anyone into thinking there are career pathways that don’t exist, but they also shouldn’t be the gatekeepers deciding for individuals what they should do,” she said.

Custer said when program leaders “try to anticipate barriers,” they risk creating new ones based on false assumptions about students’ job prospects. For example, some credentials, such as a law degree, can be useful in various jobs, and graduates may opt to move to states with fewer restrictions and more professional opportunities, he said. Students may also want to challenge these restrictions in court, and laws banning formerly incarcerated people from certain careers are increasingly being overturned.

Additionally, state lawmakers around the country are moving to ease these restrictions after hearing from advocates, employers and people released from prison themselves about the corrosive and counterproductive effects of such bans. Since 2015, 33 states have eased or removed licensing barriers for people with criminal records, according to the Institute for Justice report. For example, Iowa lawmakers passed a law in 2020 mandating that licensing boards cannot deny licenses to people with criminal records unless their crimes “directly relate” to that particular profession.

The employment restrictions sparked renewed debate after Congress reauthorized the use of federal Pell Grants by students in prison last year after a 26-year ban. The U.S. Department of Education and advocates for people affected by the law reached consensus on the prison education regulations in the negotiated rule-making process on Friday, and financial aid grants are expected to start being disbursed by July 2023.

The department seeks to “ensure that postsecondary institutions do not offer programs to students if State or Federal laws would ban, exempt, or prohibit formerly incarcerated students from licensure or employment,” according to an October Department of Education paper distributed to members of the prison education subcommittee, a group of experts selected to advise the department on regulations related to the issue.

The department intended to uphold the language in the original legislation to prevent predatory colleges from offering degrees that students can’t use. Subcommittee members pushed back and said colleges should instead be required to inform students of any possible restrictions that could affect their future careers. The final regulations do not allow colleges to enroll incarcerated students in programs that lead to prohibited fields. Custer noted that colleges have more discretion when it comes to fields that have lesser hurdles, however.

“It’s about giving them the agency to make informed decisions on their education and their career paths,” Terrell Blount, director of the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network and a member of the prison education subcommittee, said of the students. “There are plenty of formerly incarcerated people that have successfully challenged legal barriers to employment.”

He said formerly incarcerated people are too often shepherded into fields such as welding or truck driving, in part because employers in those industries are more likely not to “give a heck about people’s conviction histories.”

Blount was not told about possible collateral consequences when he took courses at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey during his five years in prison—or that only three credits, from a public speaking course, of the 20 course credits he earned would transfer to Rutgers University when he was released. He said colleges and universities are increasing support and career advising services for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students, but there’s still work to be done.

Some institutions “are just looking at completion rates on the inside,” he said. “You can have a college degree, but if there’s no job lined up for you or willing to accept you and you’re homeless, those completion rates mean nothing at the end of the day.”

Stanley Andrisse, executive director of From Prison Cells To PhD, a mentoring program for formerly incarcerated students, and other subcommittee members pushed the Education Department to say in the regulations that prison education programs should partner with community organizations that help students with re-entry. Andrisse, who spent more than three years in prison on drug trafficking charges, is also an assistant professor of endocrinology at Howard University College of Medicine.

Like Blount, no one counseled him in prison or when he got out about possible career barriers imposed by state or federal laws.

“For me, it was challenging because I didn’t have a road map,” he said of his education trajectory. “I didn’t have any examples to go off of.”

He believes community programs that specialize in re-entry can help colleges educate students about restrictions and also help students “put together a plan B. That’s what an adviser should be doing anyway, but there are specific types of advising that need to be done that a college just isn’t equipped for because they’re not equipped to really deal with people who are going through the system.”

Neptune, of the Bard Prison Initiative, said college administrators may also struggle to keep track of a “massive” number of restrictions that vary widely from state to state and are subject to change.

“It’s really hard to wrap your arms around where all of those barriers exist,” she said. Her staff members do research and inform students about possible restrictions, help them navigate limits or find alternate ways to pursue their fields of choice.

She said colleges should be better informed about the restrictions, “but we have to also be pushing in all of the kinds of creative ways alongside our students and our alums to find pathways to the careers of their dreams and break down the barriers and not just concede to them.”

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