In Search of a Job: Criminal Records as Barriers to Employment

Amy L. Solomon

Ms. Solomon co-chairs the staff working group of the Attorney General’s Reentry Council. This article is an adaptation of her July 26, 2011, testimony before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"I am writing this letter … out of desperation and to tell you a little about the struggles of re-entering society as a convicted felon.” Thus began a letter that made its way to me at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The letter came from a 30-year-old man who — in 2003, at age 21 — lost control of his car after a night of drinking, killing his close friend. "Jay" was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 38 months in state prison.

"I have worked hard to turn my life around. I have remained clean for nearly eight years, I am succeeding in college, and I continue to share my story in schools, treatment facilities and correctional institutions, yet I have nothing to show for it. … I have had numerous interviews and sent out more than 200 resumes for jobs which I am more than qualified. I have had denial after denial because of my felony.” Jay ends the letter saying, “I do understand that you are not responsible for the choices that have brought me to this point. Furthermore, I recognize that if I was not abiding by the law, if I was not clean, and if I was not focusing my efforts toward a successful future, I would have no claim to make."

Jay's story is not unusual.

A Substantial Share of the U.S. Population Has Arrest Records

A new study shows that nearly onethird of American adults have been arrested by age 23.1 This record will keep many people from obtaining employment, even if they have paid their dues, are qualified for the job and are unlikely to reoffend. At the same time, it is the chance at a job that offers hope for people involved in the criminal justice system, as we know from research that stable employment is an important predictor of successful re-entry and desistance from crime.2

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Criminal records run the gamut — from one-time arrests where charges are dropped to lengthy, serious and violent criminal histories. Most arrests are for relatively minor or nonviolent offenses. Among the nearly 14 million arrests recorded in 2009, only 4 percent were considered among the most serious violent crimes (which include murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault).3 (See Figure 1.) Another 10 percent of all arrests were for simple assault; these do not involve a weapon or aggravated injury but often include domestic violence and intimate partner violence. The remainder of the arrests in 2009 were for:

  • Property crimes, which accounted for 18 percent of arrests. These include burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, arson, vandalism, stolen property, forgery and counterfeiting, fraud, and embezzlement.
  • Drug offenses, which accounted for 12 percent of arrests. These include production, distribution and use of controlled substances.
  • Other offenses, which accounted for 56 percent of all arrests. These include disorderly conduct, drunkenness, prostitution, vagrancy, loitering, driving under the influence and weapons violations.

Although many of these “other” offenses are for behaviors that harm the community, they do not constitute the most serious violent offenses of murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

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Furthermore, what is often forgotten is that many people who have been arrested — and, therefore, technically have a criminal record that shows up on a background check — were never convicted of a crime. This is true not only among those charged with minor crimes, but also for many individuals arrested for serious offenses. A snapshot of felony filings in the 75 largest counties, for example, showed that approximately one-third of felony arrests did not lead to conviction.4

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About the Author

    Amy L. Solomon

    Amy L. Solomon is a Senior Advisor to the Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Crime Scene Investigator Network gratefully acknowledges the author and the National Institute of Justice for allowing us to reproduce the article .

Article posted June 5, 2019

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