June 2016, Cherrie Bucknor and Alan Barber

Despite modest declines in recent years, the large and decades-long blossoming of the prison population ensure that it will take many years before the United States sees a corresponding decrease in the number of former prisoners. Using data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), this report estimates that there were between 14 and 15.8 million working-age people with felony convictions in 2014, of whom between 6.1 and 6.9 million were former prisoners.

Prior research has shown the adverse impact that time in prison or a felony conviction can have on a person’s employment prospects. In addition to the stigma attached to a criminal record, these impacts can include the erosion of basic job skills, disruption of formal education, and the loss of social networks that can improve job-finding prospects. Those with felony convictions also face legal restrictions that lock them out of many government jobs and licensed professions.

Assuming a mid-range 12 percentage-point employment penalty for this population, this report finds that there was a 0.9 to 1.0 percentage-point reduction in the overall employment rate in 2014, equivalent to the loss of 1.7 to 1.9 million workers. In terms of the cost to the economy as a whole, this suggests a loss of about $78 to $87 billion in annual GDP. Some highlights of this study include:

  • Between 6.0 and 6.7 percent of the male working-age population were former prisoners, while between 13.6 and 15.3 percent were people with felony convictions.

  • Employment effects were larger for men than women, with a 1.6 to 1.8 percentage-point decline in the employment rate of men and a 0.12 to 0.14 decline for women.

  • Among men, those with less than a high school degree experienced much larger employment rate declines than their college-educated peers, with a drop of 7.3 to 8.2 percentage points in the employment rates of those without a high school degree and a decline of 0.4 to 0.5 percentage points for those with college experience.

  • Black men suffered a 4.7 to 5.4 percentage-point reduction in their employment rate, while the equivalent for Latino men was between 1.4 and 1.6 percentage points, and for white men it was 1.1 to 1.3 percentage points.

This paper updates earlier CEPR research that also examined the impact of former prisoners and those with felony convictions on the economy.

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