Study Finds More Than Half of Unemployed Young Men Have Criminal Records

Shawn Bushway in glasses and a bowtie

By Margaret Hartley

ALBANY, N.Y. (Feb. 22, 2022) — More than half of the country’s unemployed men in their 30s have a history of being arrested or convicted of a crime, a stigma that poses a barrier to them participating in the nation’s labor force, according to a new study led by Shawn Bushway, professor of Public Administration and Policy, and published Feb. 18 in the journal Science Advances.

Bushway, on leave from UAlbany this year and working as a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit global research organization RAND Corporation in Pittsburgh, said the findings suggest that employment services should focus more on the special challenges facing the unemployed who have criminal history records. Co-authors on the study are Irineo Cabreros, Jessica Welburn Paige, Daniel Schwam and Jeffrey B. Wenger, all researchers at RAND.

“Employers need to understand that one big reason they cannot find the workers they need is too often they exclude those who have had involvement with the criminal justice system,” Bushway said. “Employers need to reconsider their protocols about how to respond when applicants have some type of criminal history.”

While there has been much research documenting unemployment among those who have been incarcerated, the RAND study is the first to estimate the incidence of criminal histories among American men who are unemployed.

It’s estimated that as many as one in three American adults have been arrested at some point in their life, a product of the nation’s aggressive law enforcement practices over the past several decades. Men are more likely than women to have a criminal history record, making it more difficult for them to secure employment. A higher rate of criminal justice involvement for Black people, combined with persistent racism and discrimination, may make it particularly difficult for Black job seekers to find work.

The study found that by age 34, some 64 percent of unemployed men have been arrested and 46 percent convicted of a crime. These rates vary only slightly by race and ethnicity.

For the study, unemployment was defined as being without work for four weeks or more during the past year. Researchers examined arrests, convictions (including guilty pleas) and incarceration that occurred after age 18, excluding traffic-related offenses. Data came from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (1997), which follows a nationally representative group of Americans over the course of their lives. Researchers examined responses from about 9,000 participants born from 1980 through 1984 and recruited into the survey in 1997.

The RAND study found that men between the ages of 30-38 who were unemployed in 2017 had substantial levels of involvement with the criminal justice system. The majority had been arrested at least once, almost 40 percent had been convicted at least once, and more than 20 percent had been incarcerated at least once. The results were very similar when researchers included recently discouraged workers and those who were working fewer hours than they wanted.

Among those studied, the arrest prevalence for all Black men (both employed and unemployed) is roughly 33 percent higher than it is for white men at every age from 18 to 35, with some evidence that the gap widens further during their 30s. Hispanic men generally have higher rates of arrest, conviction and incarceration than white men, although the differences were not statistically significant.

However, when only considering those men who experience periods of joblessness, the study found that unemployed Black, Hispanic and white men experience similar rates of involvement with the criminal justice system throughout most of the lifecycle studied.

Researchers say the main lesson from the study is that unemployment services need to do more to help people cope with their criminal histories.

“Most government programs focus on providing the unemployed with new skills in order to get them into the workforce,” said Bushway, who plans to return to UAlbany for the Fall 2022 semester. “But if you only focus on skills development, you are missing a big part of the problem. The unemployment system almost never looks at the role that criminal history plays in keeping people out of the workforce.”

Researchers say that efforts to bar employers from asking about criminal histories on job applications (so called “Ban-the-Box” laws) are unlikely to have a major impact on helping unemployed men with criminal records. Employers have easy access to applicants’ criminal records through commercial databases and routinely review those records in background checks done before hiring, even if the question is left off job applications.

Employers need to reconsider how they view the risks posed by applicants with criminal records, the researchers say. New, sophisticated prediction models that seek to understand the risk of recidivism among people who apply for jobs could indicate the true relative risk of job applicants with criminal records.

“Most employers believe that most people with criminal histories will commit offenses again, but that is not the case,” Bushway said. “And the risk of reoffending drops dramatically as people spend more time free in the community without a new conviction. Employers need to adopt a more nuanced approach to the issue.”