One in three adults in the United States has been arrested at least once, a strikingly high number compared with many other countries. Now, a new study reveals one of the implications of that figure: Nearly half of unemployed U.S. men have a criminal conviction by age 35, which makes it harder to get a job, according to an analysis of survey data.
The findings suggest having a criminal justice history is pushing many men to the sidelines of the job market, says sociologist Sarah Esther Lageson of Rutgers University, Newark, who was not involved in the study. “I’m not sure that many people understand just how prevalent an arrest is,” she says. “It really shows up [that unemployment] is actually a mass criminalization problem. … Because arrests are so common, they shouldn’t be considered in an employment context at all,” she says.
The work began when Amy Solomon, then head of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, was leading U.S. efforts to help former prisoners re-enter society. She knew previous research had shown having a criminal record—from arrest to conviction to incarceration—makes it harder to get a job. Employers may hesitate to hire applicants with a criminal record for fear they will reoffend, or for potential negligent hire lawsuits. But Solomon couldn’t figure out just how many of the unemployed had criminal records. She turned to Shawn Bushway, an economist and criminologist at RAND Corporation with a track record of finding answers to hard questions about statistics in criminal justice. “No one in criminology [had ever] asked … that question,” he says.
Because the justice system in the United States is highly fragmented, there’s no centralized repository of criminal history records. “[The data] is public by law, yet it is extraordinarily difficult to collect,” says Michael Romano, a criminal law researcher at Stanford Law School who was not involved in the new study.
So Bushway turned to another source: data from the U.S. Department of Labor. Starting in 1997, statisticians with the department conducted the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. For more than 2 decades, they have periodically interviewed 8984 people born between 1980 and 1984, asking questions about education, income, employment status, and criminal histories. Bushway had used the survey once before—to come up with the estimate of how many U.S. adults had ever been arrested.
Because far fewer women are arrested than men, Bushway and his colleagues focused on unemployed men. Of the men who responded to the survey at age 35, 5.8% were unemployed, which the researchers defined as being without a job for at least four consecutive weeks, but fewer than 39 weeks. Of these men, 64% had been arrested at least once and slightly more than 46% had a conviction, the team reported yesterday at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science) and online today in Science Advances.
“It’s pretty staggering,” Romano says. “I would not have guessed that such a high number of people who are unemployed have a criminal background … it’s really eye-opening.”
The researchers also wanted to know whether people of color were disproportionally impacted by both unemployment and a criminal record. Among survey respondents, Black and Hispanic men were 1.4 times more likely to be arrested than white men, and were 1.8 and 1.2 times more likely to be unemployed, respectively. But what the researchers found surprised them: Although more Black and Hispanic survey participants were unemployed and had a criminal record than their white counterparts, the proportion of the unemployed Black men with criminal records was similar to that of unemployed white men with criminal records. Among the unemployed, 67% of Black men, 58% of Hispanic men, and 65% of white men had been arrested by age 35.
Lila Kazemian, a sociologist at City University of New York, calls these results “surprising.” She adds: “This is somewhat unexpected, given that Black men experience unemployment and contacts with the criminal justice system at a higher rate than their non-Black counterparts.”
The explanation, the authors say, is that although racism influences hiring, discrimination based on criminal history may be even more potent. “People [with criminal histories] are being segregated into certain jobs and in certain industries, and are unable to advance their careers … many, many years after they have a record,” Bushway says.
Harry Holzer, a labor economist at Georgetown University, says the findings should be taken into account by employment and re-entry services. But he points out that the findings may not be applicable for all unemployed today: Some of the years used in the survey had very tight labor markets, he says, and because the survey relies on self-reports, there’s a chance the criminal background of participants is underreported.
Meanwhile, Lageson points to Western European countries like France, where criminal records are not public and employers cannot use them to make hiring decisions. In experimental research, Lageson has found that U.S. employers do discriminate against applicants if they have one arrest. “We should rethink public access to these types of low-level records given that they’re impacting such a large proportion of unemployed people,” she says.
“These findings represent a major contribution to the re-entry literature and hold a key to improving economic mobility among those who are unemployed,” says Solomon, now a principal deputy assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice. “Now that we have an answer to this question, I hope the workforce development field will pay even greater attention to the barriers imposed by a criminal record and create strategies to address them.”
Clarification, 20 February, 1:50 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify that the survey results were for American men in their mid-30s, and do not necessarily apply to all American men.