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Second-Chance Hiring: Fifth District Efforts to Improve Post-Incarceration Outcomes

Regional Matters
July 29, 2022

In the current economy, where job postings significantly exceed the number of people actively seeking employment, previously incarcerated individuals represent an important source of labor that both states and institutions are increasingly interested in engaging. Successfully implementing second-chance hiring initiatives, in which companies hire individuals with criminal records, can help improve outcomes for previously incarcerated individuals, the companies they work for, and their communities.

In the United States in 2019, there were 1.4 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and 747,000 people incarcerated in local and county jails (2.2 million total). In a typical year, state and federal prisons release more than 600,000 people, and over 9 million individuals spend at least some time in a local jail. Although these figures can be overwhelming, the number of incarcerated people in the United States actually fell in the 10 years prior to 2019, with approximately 218,000 fewer individuals confined than in 2009.

Jail and prison populations fell even further in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These declines were driven by delayed or canceled court proceedings, some prisoners being released early due to health concerns, and COVID-19 outbreaks inside prisons/jails. Total incarceration fell to 1.8 million individuals (1.2 million in prisons and 549,000 in jails), representing an 18.5 percent decline in a single year. While annual declines in the level of incarceration averaged around 22,000 individuals between 2009 and 2019, the one-year decline in 2020 was nearly 400,000 individuals.

The reduction of the incarcerated population means there are now more individuals living freely with criminal arrests and convictions. It is estimated that around 80 million people in the United States have an arrest or conviction record. These individuals often face significant challenges finding employment and successfully reentering society. The data are bleak. A Brookings Institution report in 2018 found that 45 percent of formerly incarcerated people remain unemployed one year after their release. In addition, they found that men leaving prison had median earnings of just over $10,000 in the first calendar year following release. Work from the Richmond Fed shows that these employment impacts are long-lasting. For example, jobless rates for Black males with a history of incarceration are estimated to be 25 percent higher than for identical males who have not been incarcerated. The gap narrows as years past incarceration increases, but the joblessness gap remains significant even 10 years later. Furthermore, the authors estimate that lifetime income declines from incarceration for men range from 33 to 50 percent, depending on educational attainment and race.

The result is a large group of individuals whose skills are not being used efficiently and whose potential is severely limited.

Why Would Companies Want to Hire Formerly Incarcerated Individuals?

It is likely not surprising that formerly incarcerated individuals often struggle to find employment opportunities. They face a combination of issues, ranging from company hesitancy to restrictive state and local policies to lack of skill development to social and emotional issues. However, research shows that companies who engage in second-chance hiring benefit from that choice. The Second Chance Business Coalition found that 85 percent of human resource leaders say that individuals with criminal records perform the same or better than workers without criminal records. Second-chance hires have also proven to have lower turnover rates than employees without criminal backgrounds.

Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, has shown how this can work. For more than 15 years, Johns Hopkins has been involved in second-chance hiring. They studied these previously incarcerated employees over a five-year period to measure outcomes. Of the 79 employees hired with violent criminal backgrounds, 73 remained employed at Johns Hopkins at the end of the time period analyzed — an 8 percent turnover rate compared to an average annual turnover rate of 39.4 percent in the health care and social assistance sector. Additionally, only one individual with a violent criminal background was involuntarily terminated.

Given the challenges faced by formerly incarcerated individuals and the success of some organizations with second-chance hiring, there are now coordinated efforts among federal, state, and local partners to encourage companies to give second-chance hiring a try.

State Policies

Some states, including in the Fifth District, have instituted policy initiatives aimed directly at second-chance hiring. Two examples are Ban the Box and the elimination of driver's license suspensions for those owing court fees.

The Ban the Box movement discourages the use of a check box on applications asking job applicants if they have a criminal record. Instead, Ban the Box advocates assert that asking applicants if they have a criminal background should not be done until the person has been offered a position. This way, the criminal background is not the first thing considered about the applicant. Currently, 34 states and 150 U.S. cities have some form of Ban the Box law, as does the federal government. In the Fifth District, both Maryland and the District of Columbia have broad Ban the Box laws. In Maryland, the law applies to employers with at least 15 full-time employees. It disallows asking about criminal backgrounds until a person has had an in-person interview. The District of Columbia law takes it a step further by including businesses with at least 10 employees and disallowing consideration of criminal history until there is a conditional offer. Virginia has a less robust law that protects only those applicants previously arrested or convicted for a marijuana-related crime.

There is controversy surrounding the efficacy of Ban the Box legislation. Some studies have found that these laws improve employment outcomes for those with criminal records. Others argue that instituting these laws increases statistical discrimination by creating an environment where employers are more likely to assume that certain demographic groups, namely minority males, have criminal backgrounds.

Both Virginia and West Virginia have changed another policy directly aimed at improving outcomes for previously incarcerated individuals. Prior to 2019, all Fifth District states had policies in which an individual's driver's license was suspended if they had unpaid criminal fees and/or court fines. Therefore, many incarcerated individuals would leave jail/prison without the ability to drive. Recently, Virginia and West Virginia changed state law to no longer suspend driver's licenses for unpaid court fees. This makes transportation to and from work easier for many formerly incarcerated drivers. In Virginia alone, this policy change impacted 613,000 individuals at the time the law was passed.

The Role of Nonprofits

There are organizations in the Fifth District uniquely focused on the challenges associated with second-chance hiring. One organization in South Carolina, Turn90, is working specifically with formerly incarcerated men, mostly convicted of violent crimes. Turn90 uses a four-component process to assist men as they reenter society. The first component is in-depth cognitive behavioral therapy. Each participant completes 150 hours of counseling, and they are paid for the time spent in therapy. The second step is transitional work. While enrolled in the program, participants are paid a competitive wage as they work at the screen printing business operated by Turn90. The third component is case management. Turn90 recognizes that people leave prison with a host of needs; therefore, social workers work with these participants on issues such as housing, transportation, and health care. Lastly, Turn90 provides permanent job placement for participants once they graduate from transitional work.

While Turn90 is a small nonprofit serving around 125 men in South Carolina this year, their model has proven to make a big difference for the individuals they serve, especially given the challenges faced by their program participants. For example, ninety percent of men in the program were originally arrested as juveniles, and 93 percent of them did not graduate from high school. Many of them have never maintained stable employment before coming to Turn90, even before incarceration. Only 22 percent of Turn90 graduates have been rearrested to date compared to 62 percent recidivism nationally. From the employer perspective, they are also relatively successful in their jobs once they graduate. Over 88 percent of Turn90's 2021 graduates remained at their first job placement for at least 180 days. This is far better than national statistics where around one-third of employees leave their jobs within the first six months.


In a world where employers are struggling to find workers, facilitating meaningful work and competitive pay for previously incarcerated individuals could increase labor force participation rates, reduce labor shortages and, in the longer run, improve economic outcomes both for the individuals and their communities. Not only is recidivism reduced with sustained employment, but also formerly incarcerated individuals have retention rates that exceed national averages. Efforts to eliminate policy roadblocks and improve post-incarceration outcomes can improve both local labor markets and broader economic outcomes. There are roles for government, nonprofit, and private employer partners in this important work.