Urban Wire Locked up and left out: Returning citizens struggle to find work in Washington, DC
Marina Duane, Emily Reimal
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A job search is daunting at best. But for jobseekers returning home after serving time in prison, the challenge is even greater. Cards replace tickets and tokens on public transit, job applications are now submitted online, and the proliferation of criminal background checks means that even if you get past the in-person interview and receive a job offer, it could be rescinded.

Plus, returning citizens often deal with trauma, broken family ties, and lost life skills. All these struggles add up against employers’ ever-present reluctance to hire people with criminal records.

That employer hesitation is not just an everyday worry for returning citizens—it also affects neighborhood and regional economies.

In Washington, DC, 71 percent of returning citizens who entered community supervision in 2015 reported being unemployed. When so many people can’t find jobs and contribute to the economy, rates of economic inequality and concentrated poverty grow. In turn, high unemployment rates lead to higher recidivism, which undermines public safety.

Last month, the Urban Institute convened researchers, local and national business leaders, government officials, nonprofit leaders, and returning citizens to discuss the complexity of employment issues for DC’s justice-involved residents and explore practical solutions. Here’s what we learned.

Employers have a predisposition against hiring people with criminal records, which could be a missed opportunity

Employers’ hesitation stems from uncertainty about prospective employees’ past records and a lack of reliable information about their performance. Flaws in criminal background reports do not allow employers to quickly assess if a candidate’s past record is relevant to the job, and employers who haven’t hired returning citizens before are unsure how they’ll perform on the job.

“Businesses, with all their capital, need to see the success stories and see how employing justice-involved people could benefit [them],” said Brian Ferguson, executive director of the DC Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs. Malcom Glenn, strategic partnerships manager for Uber Technologies Inc., shared Uber’s positive experience with its drivers and encouraged other large companies to follow suit.

criminal background checks event

From L to R, Nancy La Vigne leads a discussion on criminal background checks with Brian Ferguson, Kate Mereand-Sinha, Marina Duane, and Charles Jones at an event hosted by the Urban Institute.

Employers’ reluctance could be addressed with strong, reliable data. But to date, we’ve lacked empirical evidence exploring the productivity and job performance of people with criminal records compared with their non-justice-involved peers.

A web of regulations leaves a narrow path to employment for justice-involved people

Criminal background checks continue to be common practice among many US employers. One survey showed that 72 percent of employers perform a background check, and of those employers, 82 percent review candidates’ criminal history.

But the flaws and limitations of criminal background checks are significant, including the potential for a criminal record to exist even when a person wasn’t convicted of a crime or the outcome of the case wasn’t appropriately recorded. 

We analyzed court records in Washington, DC, and found that half of cases from 2007 to 2016 did not result in a conviction, but such records are still maintained in the publicly accessible system.

Although the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act prohibits including arrest records without matching convictions, current enforcement mechanisms are insufficient. In fact, our interviews with government and nonprofit officials confirm background check reports still include arrests without case outcomes, meaning some candidates who were not found guilty of crimes might still not receive job offers because of their history.

The modern labor market easily excludes returning citizens

Another recent Urban report shows that returning citizens in Washington, DC, face limited job opportunities. Seventy-five percent of jobs posted online require a bachelor’s degree or higher, but only 4 percent of returning citizens have a college degree.

“When you have that sort of a gap in employment or skills, during a time when technology moves ahead by leaps and bounds, we have people at a distinct disadvantage…you use an iPad to apply for a job at McDonald’s,” said Cynthia Roseberry, executive director of the Council for Court Excellence.

Developing soft skills, such as conflict resolution, effective communication, and teamwork, is high on the agenda for many employment assistance programs, as they help people keep a job and develop a career.

Companies and communities can help fight the stigma associated with justice-system involvement

“No one is going to welcome you with open arms,” said Sakenia Hammond, an Aspire Program graduate and returning citizen who struggled to find a job before being hired by Home Depot.

Yet, as Will Avila, a returning citizen and business owner who hires other returning citizens, put it: “A lot of people ask me, ‘What kept you going?’ And what I say is, someone gave me a chance.”

Companies and people can fight the stigma associated with having a criminal record by creating more opportunities. “Translate that [desire to help] into the use of your dollars: grant dollars, hiring dollars, consumer dollars…. When you spend money in a personal or professional space, it’s helping to lift those folks,” explained Katherine Mereand-Sinha from the DC Department of Small and Local Business Development.

Helping returning citizens find and maintain jobs is not easy, but in our research, we’ve uncovered policy solutions to help ease their transition to the workforce:  

  • Introduce a background check process that assures accuracy and completeness
  • Provide employers strong and reliable data on job performance of people with criminal records by investing in research
  • Provide incentives to states to remove unnecessary regulatory barriers to employment

These recommendations could bring about much-needed relief for returning citizens, expand their job prospects, and strengthen local economies.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety Greater DC
Tags Corrections Crime and justice analytics Unemployment and unemployment insurance
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center
Cities Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV
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