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Jobs after Jail 

Study: Level of Crime has Greater Impact on Future Employment Than Time Spent in Prison 

Shawn Bushway worked on a study of 100,000 Michigan felony cases, and crime's impact on employment.

ALBANY, N.Y. (July 18, 2018) — Being convicted of a felony may have a bigger impact on future employment than being incarcerated does.

That’s the finding of a newly published report by sociology Professor David Harding of the University of California, Berkeley, along with UAlbany’s Professor Shawn Bushway, and Professor Jeffrey D. Morenoff and Ph.D. student Anh P. Nguyen of the University of Michigan.

Their study, “Imprisonment and Labor Market Outcomes: Evidence from a Natural Experiment,” looked at the effect of imprisonment on post-release employment through a sample of more than 100,000 felony cases in Michigan between 2003 and 2006. The research, funded in part by a National Science Foundation grant, broke down results based on race and prior labor market experience. It was published in the July issue of the American Journal of Sociology.

The study compares people who have been convicted of a felony and sentenced to probation to otherwise similar people who were sentenced to prison. The study found, not surprisingly, that those sentenced to prison experienced worse employment outcomes during the time they were in prison, relative to those who were sentenced to probation. However, the study also found that this effect disappeared after the prison spell, suggesting that there was no long term impact of prison on employment, over and above the impact of the felony conviction.

This result contradicts prominent existing work suggesting a negative impact of prison on employment – however, prior work often compared ex-prisoners to people who had not been convicted. Bushway explained that this paper “suggests that the felony conviction itself, and not the incarceration spell, appears to be the main cause of employment problems for people with convictions.”

This is an important insight, Bushway said, given that the expansion of the criminal justice system in the past 50 years has led not only to mass incarceration, but in a fourfold increase in the number of people being convicted of felonies. Other work has showed that people convicted of felonies face a much harder time reentering the workforce than someone convicted of a misdemeanor or a violation – regardless of incarceration.

Bushway, a public administration and policy professor at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy with an appointment in the School of Criminal Justice, is an expert in criminal justice policy whose primary research interests include employment for individuals with criminal history records.

The report also found that:

  • People who had better economic prospects before imprisonment saw the greatest economic harm from being relegated post-release to the secondary labor market – low-wage jobs with little possibility for advancement. Prisoners with little prior work history saw a short-term improvement in employment after release.
  • Imprisonment effectively expands and reinforces racial inequalities by removing hundreds of thousands of African-American men from the labor market at some point in their lives
  • People sentenced to probation rather than prison are far less likely – a 20 percentage point difference – to be imprisoned a second time.
  • Developing policies to reclassify some felonies as misdemeanors, and allowing more people to shield or expunge their criminal records could improve the post-release employment prospects of those involved in the criminal justice system.

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