How to Get Good Jobs for People With Criminal Records
Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime? If so, then you're probably very familiar with this issue. You might even think that good jobs for people with criminal records are impossible to find. And who could blame you? After all, securing any kind of employment with a criminal history can be difficult and frustrating.
Even so, it is possible to overcome this problem. With good information and targeted effort, you can revive your potential and get back on track to a better future. It takes courage. And it takes hope. But you can achieve it.
You have every right to know how to get a job with a criminal record. So learn more of the facts and find out what actions you can take to make your goals happen.
The Facts About Getting a Job With a Criminal Record
Many people believe that only a tiny percentage of Americans have criminal records. But nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, as many as 33 percent of people in the U.S. have been arrested or convicted for criminal offenses. That represents almost 100 million people.* As a result, trying to get jobs with a criminal record is a fairly common challenge.
It's true. The numbers really are that big. Here's why:
- By the age of 23, as many as 25 to 40 percent of adults in America have been arrested.*
- Each year, roughly nine million people are released from jail. And in 2010 alone, over 708,000 people were released from federal and state prisons.**
- Over 4.7 million Americans are currently on probation or on parole.*
- Many people have criminal records due to minor or non-serious offenses such as misdemeanors.
- Criminal records often include arrests, even if they never resulted in convictions or were discriminatory or unjustified for other reasons.
- Over half of America's homeless people have been incarcerated due to laws that effectively criminalize certain actions associated with poverty or trying to survive on the streets.*
- About 400,000 innocent people in the U.S. each year encounter problems from being tied to the criminal records of actual offenders who falsely used their names and identities when they were arrested.*
Why are these facts important? They show that you are not alone. A huge number of other people are dealing with the same challenge of finding employment after coming into contact with America's criminal justice system.
It's true that getting a good job can be hard for almost anyone. But it can be extra difficult if you have a criminal record. Here's why that challenge is often so daunting:
- According to one survey, over 90 percent of companies in the U.S. perform criminal background checks on job applicants. And many of them will quickly reject applicants if those checks turn up any arrests or convictions. In fact, a criminal record decreases a person's chances of receiving a job offer or being called back by almost 50 percent.***
- The criminal records of Americans are generally inexpensive and easy to access.
- Having just one arrest on your record can potentially result in a lifetime of difficulty in attaining job opportunities.
Why Employers Care About Criminal Records
Companies and other organizations often have good reasons for considering criminal records when making hiring decisions or screening employees. For example, they might be concerned about:
- Keeping their workplaces safe
- Protecting their property
- Avoiding legal liability from harm that could occur to clients, customers, or suppliers
- Ensuring that their existing employees won't be subjected to abuse or predatory behaviors
In addition, many occupations are tightly regulated by laws that ban people with criminal records from working in them. For instance, you might encounter such barriers in fields like:
- Security and law enforcement
- Nursing and other healthcare vocations
- Teaching and child care
- Banking and financial services
- Aviation and public transportation
Of course, many employers also have misplaced fears. They may not realize that some of their biases against people with criminal records are based more on myths than established facts. So their own stereotypes can play a big role in how they assess risk and develop their hiring practices.
Reasons for Hope and Optimism
There is a growing awareness of the many problems associated with rejecting so many people based on their criminal records. Employers, thought leaders, and policymakers are increasingly learning that:
- Former offenders who have been out of the criminal justice system for several years are at no larger risk of committing new crimes than people who don't have criminal records.*
- Providing stable employment opportunities to ex-offenders helps them stay out of trouble, which is great for public safety as well as for the economy. In fact, every year, up to $65 billion dollars could be added to America's gross domestic product (GDP) if all people with criminal records had employment.*
- Rejecting job candidates based solely on their criminal history is often misguided since it artificially limits an employer's pool of qualified applicants. As a result, employers often hire people who aren't as talented or productive even though the candidates that they've rejected may, in reality, pose no greater safety or security risk.
That's why many of America's leaders (on both sides of the political spectrum) are calling for comprehensive reforms to the criminal justice system. So momentum is building toward changes that would make it easier for many people to secure good employment in spite of their criminal records.
In fact, some reforms are already underway. For example:
- Many states and municipalities have passed "ban-the-box" laws that make it illegal for employers in the public sector to include questions about criminal arrests or convictions on their job applications. In a few regions, that ban also extends to private employers. In addition, President Obama has ordered federal agencies to ban the box on their employment applications. And a few of America's largest private employers have voluntarily decided to remove such questions from their applications.
- Other types of "fair-chance" hiring laws have also been enacted in some regions. They include laws that allow job applicants to review the background checks that are performed on them for accuracy, prohibit the practice of asking about arrests that never lead to convictions, and give applicants the opportunity to share evidence of their rehabilitation.
- Multiple states now have laws in place that forbid the disqualification of job applicants based on their criminal records unless they've had convictions that are related to the type of positions they would be employed in.
It's important to note that ban-the-box and other fair-chance hiring laws still allow employers to run background checks and to ask certain questions at the interview or job-offer stage. So you can still be rejected for having a criminal past. But such laws at least provide more opportunities to explain your story and promote your best qualities, which can increase your odds of getting hired.
How to Get a Job With a Criminal Record: 10 Smart Tactics
There are probably many jobs you can get with a criminal record if you have enough knowledge to develop a good plan of action. So don't give up on your dreams. The following suggestions are aimed at helping you achieve a more stable future.
1. Learn Your Rights
This step is crucial. After all, knowledge is power. You need to understand the rules of the game.
The first place to start is the department of labor for your state. Call the department and ask for information about all of the pre-employment screening laws that apply to people with criminal records in your region. Depending on where you live, you may be able to take advantage of some of the reforms mentioned above.
In addition, you should be aware of the following laws:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act—This one might apply if you are a minority, especially if you are Hispanic or African-American. Basically, this law makes it illegal to discriminate against job applicants based on their race. And since people of color are arrested and convicted of crimes at higher rates than white people, employers could be in violation of this law if they reject you based solely on your criminal record. Instead, they have to consider multiple related factors. Blanket demands for a clean record as a condition of employment are simply illegal. Enforcement of this law is handled by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
- The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)—Many employers routinely violate this law. So it's up to you to know your rights. Under this law, you must be provided with any report from a commercial provider of background checks if an employer used it as the basis to reject your application. And it must be provided before the employer refuses to hire you. That way, you can check the report for any incorrect information. Employers must follow several other rules as well. This law is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.
2. Check Your Criminal Record for Errors
Here's a shocking fact: About half of all FBI background checks turn up out-of-date information or fail to show whether or not arrests actually resulted in convictions.*** In 2012 alone, erroneous background checks from the FBI were provided for about 600,000 job seekers.* And reports from commercial providers of background checks are also known to frequently contain inaccurate information.
That's why it's essential to check your own record before employers have the chance to see it. You might discover that it contains false information. If it does, you can probably submit a request to correct the inaccuracies. Of course, you may need to submit multiple requests since criminal records aren't just maintained by courts and law enforcement agencies. They are also made available to various third parties such as commercial vendors.
One of the easiest and most effective ways to check your record is to hire a private investigator. For a small fee, many investigators will gather all of the public records that can be accessed about you.
3. Try to Get Your Record Expunged or Sealed
Many states have laws that make it possible to get some or all of your criminal record erased (i.e., expunged) or made inaccessible to the public (i.e., sealed). But this possibility only exists for certain kinds of offenses—usually minor ones. (If you have a felony conviction, then your chances of getting your record expunged or sealed will be low.)
From 2009 to 2014, more than 20 states expanded their expungement laws.* So if you have misdemeanors or nonviolent offenses on your record, then it might be worthwhile to see if you can get them removed or sealed. Get the advice of an attorney or contact the criminal court in the county where your offenses took place to learn about the possibilities.
In many cases, getting your criminal record expunged or sealed means that you can legally say no to an employer's question about whether or not you've ever been arrested or convicted of any crimes.
One thing you need to be aware of, however, is that arrest or conviction records for federal criminal offenses cannot currently be expunged. Federal laws simply haven't yet caught up to state laws in this regard.*
4. Get Vocational Training in a Field That Isn't Off Limits to You
It's much harder for employers to turn you away when you have the skills they need. That's especially true if you have skills in an occupational area with a shortage of qualified workers. By getting fast training at a trade school or vocational college, you can often develop abilities that are in high demand within your region.
Obviously, not all vocations will be open to you with your criminal record. However, you still have a lot of options to choose from. And some of them even offer the potential of being your own boss. For example, consider the possibility of training for a career in:
- Skilled trades such as HVAC technology, electrical work , plumbing, or welding
- Automotive technology
- Renewable energy technology
- The culinary arts
- Office administration
- Art and design
- Computer technology
- Digital and interactive media
One of the benefits of pursuing this type of training is that trade schools and vocational colleges tend to be much less likely to conduct a criminal background check on you. The exceptions are sometimes those that offer programs in areas like healthcare or law enforcement. (That's often not the case with other kinds of colleges or universities. In fact, according to one survey, about 66 percent of colleges seek information about criminal histories during their admissions processes.****)
Plus, did you know that you might qualify for financial aid even if you have a criminal record? It's true. That's why, if you need help paying for school, you should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Even if you don't qualify for federal assistance, you still might qualify for aid from other sources, which is often based on the information that you provide on the FAFSA.
The main things that could limit your eligibility for federal student assistance are:†
- Being incarcerated at any time while seeking aid
- Having any drug-related convictions while receiving federal aid
- Having any convictions for sexual offenses
5. Look for Any Opportunities to Build Your Skills and Experience
Even if you're having trouble finding stable employment, you should always look for ways to add to your resume. The main idea is to stay active and be able to show prospective employers that you have a strong work ethic and the determination to succeed.
For instance, maybe you have skills that a charity or non-profit organization could use. Why not volunteer your services? Not only will you gain experience, but you'll also establish professional connections that could provide good references or help you find jobs that aren't being advertised.
Depending on your particular skill set, you may also be able to find freelance work. Many people with criminal histories have gained employable abilities by starting their own small businesses and building a positive reputation client by client.
6. Find Organizations That Can Help
Almost every major city is home to local agencies and private charities that offer services geared toward helping ex-offenders. Many smaller communities have helpful organizations as well. So it's possible to find programs that provide assistance with job training, finding employment, and developing life skills that lead to success.
One example of a program that helps some ex-offenders is STRIVE. With locations in more than 20 cities, it provides free job skills training, placement assistance, and a variety of other support services to disadvantaged and formerly incarcerated individuals in the inner city.
In some regions, you can also find subsidized employment programs that help ex-offenders. When employers hire participants of such programs, they receive help in paying the new employees' wages for a trial period of time. That way, employers have more incentive to provide opportunities to people with criminal histories.
You can find additional help through the National Reentry Resource Center, which provides a directory of resources in each state.
7. Network and Gather References
You can greatly increase your chances of finding good employment if you make the effort to meet several professionals who work in the industry that you'd like to enter. Many industry associations hold regular meet-and-greets. And a lot of business groups hold networking events that are open to anyone.
By dressing sharply, smiling, and showing interest in other people, you can generate a lot of contacts who may be able to help you. After all, you never know where a great job lead might come from.
Building a profile and participating on LinkedIn is another way to start making contacts. Even maintaining a Twitter account can lead to new professional contacts.
It's also a good idea to ask for references from some of the people who already know you well and can vouch for your character and work ethic. Even friends or family can make good references if they are working professionals and have good communication skills.
8. Be Honest (But Don't Share More Than You Have To)
It's never a good idea to lie about your criminal history. You need to take responsibility for it. But you don't need to mention your criminal record unless you're asked about it by an employer that is legally entitled to do so. And if you are asked, it's often best to limit your answer to only those details that satisfy the question.
For example, an employer might only ask whether you have any felony convictions. In that instance, you're under no obligation to disclose any arrests or misdemeanor convictions that you might have. Read or listen carefully so that you only answer what's being asked.
Also, when filling out job applications, it's perfectly acceptable to use the truth to your advantage. For instance, maybe you had a prison job while you were an inmate within a state correctional facility. In that case, it might be technically correct to list the state as a past employer.
9. Showcase Your Most Positive Attributes
Your criminal record doesn't have to be the focus of conversation when you interact with potential employers. In fact, it's always best if you can steer more of the attention toward your skills and positive characteristics. If an employer presses the issue, try to emphasize what you've learned from your past experiences. And point out all of the evidence related to how much you've changed, how long it's been since your interaction with the criminal justice system, and why you would make a great employee.
Also, never forget how powerful it can be to make a great first impression. Before going to interviews, job fairs, or networking events, always make sure that you have a tidy, professional appearance. When in doubt, choose clothing that's conservative. And keep your hair trimmed and neatly styled.
Another thing that can help you stand out from the competition is a video resume. Find someone who's good at making quality videos to help you. With just a one- to three-minute video presentation, you can put your enthusiastic personality on camera and talk about what makes you a great candidate for hire. By sending your video resume to hiring managers, along with your written one, you can demonstrate that you're willing to put in the extra effort to succeed.
10. Follow Up
This step is ignored by a lot of job seekers. But it can make a huge difference between success and failure. Basically, it's always a smart idea to follow up with prospective employers after submitting your application or being interviewed. It's especially essential after interviews. Be sure to send thank you cards or emails to each of the people who interviewed you. And restate your desire to work for their organization.
The same is true for the professionals that you meet through your networking efforts. Don't just take their business cards and put them aside. After a few days, or few weeks at the most, get in touch with them, reiterate your interest in what they do, and offer your assistance for anything that they might need help with.
Keep the Faith and Go Boldly Forward
Now that you have a better understanding of how to find a job with a criminal record, it's time to take action. Achieving your ambitions is possible. So don't give up.
Remember the tip about vocational training? You probably have some good program options in your area. It can't hurt to explore them. Why not check out a few of the possibilities right now? Just enter your zip code in the search box below to see a list of trade schools and vocational colleges near you!
* Center for American Progress, One Strike and You're Out: How We Can Eliminate Barriers to Economic Security and Mobility for People with Criminal Records, website last visited on November 26, 2015.
** The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, website last visited on November 26, 2015.
*** The National Employment Law Project, 65 Million "Need Not Apply": The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment, website last visited on November 26, 2015.
**** Center for Community Alternatives, The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions: Reconsidered, website last visited on November 26, 2015.
† Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education, website last visited on November 26, 2015.