Americans with incarceration histories face significant barriers to accessing quality jobs.

Across the country, cities and states have been doubling down on efforts to remove barriers that block many formerly incarcerated Americans from accessing quality jobs. In California, landmark Ban the Box legislation went into effect over the summer with a goal of improving the employment chances of the nearly seven million state residents with criminal records. Similar bills have been passed in New Jersey, Illinois, Washington D.C. and many more cities and states.

Non-Skill Barriers

1:4 1 in 4 U.S. working-age adults have a law enforcement record, which often poses a significant barrier to employment.

These ‘ban the box’ efforts, which seek to restrict employers from asking about criminal backgrounds until later in the hiring process, are just one of several strategies recently covered during a conversation Living Cities hosted on improving the employment chances of formerly incarcerated Americans.

Over the past several months, we brought together national and regional leaders in an ongoing conversation about what it takes to overcome the significant employment barriers that face job-seekers with law enforcement records.

A recent Q&A session we hosted on this issue featured panelists from the Job Opportunities Task Force, Brightline Defense Project, Center for Employment Opportunities and the Georgia Justice Project. From this rich and informative discussion with these leading practitioners, we distilled five highly interconnected lessons that can inform similar efforts on the ground:

1. Align policy and programmatic efforts

In order to effectively reach lasting systems change, programs (such as supporting formerly incarcerated job applicants with interviewing skills and resume writing) and policies (such as ‘ban the box’ legislation) need to align around the same goals. For example, San Francisco’s hiring policy prioritizes the hiring of formerly incarcerated workers for public contracts and thus complements publicly funded workforce training and support services. Collective Impact is one potentially useful framework for aligning cross-sector efforts around the common goal of helping formerly incarcerated job-seekers access quality jobs.

2. Explore innovative financing solutions

With worsening municipal budget constraints, finding more effective ways to use government dollars is a necessary condition for achieving large scale results. One promising approach can already be seen in Pay for Success initiatives (also known as Social Impact Bonds), which redirect public spending by encouraging innovation and rewarding initiatives that show results. New York State’s recent Pay for Success initiative for juvenile recidivism is a recent example of how this financing can be used to help formerly incarcerated individuals find and keep jobs. The Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Initiative is another example.

3. Frame the problem appropriately

Given that local policy and programmatic efforts take place in varying social and political contexts, language needs to be adjusted accordingly. The language used to change the hearts and minds of politicians and other citizens must be framed differently, for example, in progressive San Francisco than in the more conservative Tulsa. With these considerations in mind, the Georgia Justice Project chose to frame their efforts as “enhance the chance” instead of “ban the box” to keep a positive frame on the work. Appropriate framing that is sensitive to local discourses is critical to successful efforts in this field.

4. Make the business case for hiring formerly incarcerated people

By reaching out to potential employers to understand their concerns, channels to the business community can be opened for more accurate information sharing.

Another significant challenge is that private sector hiring practices are often shaped by misinformed perceptions. By reaching out to potential employers to understand their concerns, channels to the business community can be opened for more accurate information sharing. In New York, local leaders ran an employer-focused public education campaign that emphasized the gratitude and motivation that drives formerly incarcerated workers as well as the financial incentives available to employers who hire workers with criminal records. This type of employer engagement is critical for understanding and eventually influencing actual hiring decisions to help formerly incarcerated job-seekers gain access to good jobs.

5. Challenge perceptions

Ultimately, systems change requires changing the hearts and minds of people. This is a core challenge to enhancing the chances for formerly incarcerated Americans. Inaccurate perceptions among employers, policy makers, and the general public inform everything from personal relations to policy decisions. In order to close the opportunity gap and avoid wasted potential, we need to effectively communicate information about formerly incarcerated job-seekers to the public, policy makers and employers. The Job Opportunities Task Force did this in Maryland by supporting the leadership of those directly impacted by criminal records to advocate for ‘ban the box’ legislation and provide testimony about their struggles to find employment due to prior criminal records despite being otherwise qualified.

Living Cities is actively working to understand what it takes to better prepare low-income people for quality jobs. By looking more closely at the specific challenges facing different subgroups of job-seekers, we hope to inform the broader workforce development field’s efforts.

For more detail on efforts to overcome the non-skill employment barriers faced by formerly incarcerated individuals, you can listen to the recent conversation and read a more detailed account of these lessons learned (below).

Resource Document: Lessons for Helping Formerly Incarcerated Americans Access Quality Jobs
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You can also revisit an earlier webinar on this topic and explore the Storify from that event.

To share your experiences and provide any feedback, reach out to me at or join the dialogue on Twitter with @Living_Cities using #access2jobs.