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More than half of unemployed US men in their 30s have criminal records, study says

Story at a glance

  • Researchers from RAND Corporation studied the effect criminal records have among unemployed American men.
  • They estimated more than half of unemployed men living in America in their 30s have a history of being arrested or convicted of a crime.
  • The prevalence of arrests for all Black men, both employed and unemployed, was roughly 33 percent higher than it was for white men at every age that researchers examined.

Having a criminal record in the U.S. may be more common than it seems, as new research suggests more than half of unemployed men in their 30s have a history of being arrested or convicted of a crime. 

It’s estimated that as many as 1 in 3 American adults have been arrested at some point in their life, and men are more likely than women to have a criminal record. Researchers from the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank, noted that those figures are a result of the country’s aggressive law enforcement practices over the past several decades.  

Researchers at RAND decided to study the effects a criminal record has on men in America, publishing their results in the journal Science Advances. They found that by the age of 35, about 64 percent of unemployed men in America have been arrested, and 46 percent have been convicted of a crime.  

Those rates didn’t fluctuate much by race and ethnicity but do reflect the stigma a criminal history carries and the significant barrier to entry individuals face when trying to join the workforce and establish a steady source of income. 

Researchers investigated data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth from 1997, which follows a nationally representative group of Americans over the course of their lives, specifically examining a group of about 9,000 participants and the involvement of men with the criminal justice system through 2017. 


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The results found that men between the ages of 30 and 38 who were unemployed in 2017 had substantial levels of involvement with the criminal justice system, with the majority having been arrested at least once. Almost 40 percent had been convicted of a crime at least once and more than 20 percent had been incarcerated at least once. 

That’s consistent with data from the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP), which notes that between 1980 and 2014, the U.S. incarceration rates increased by 220 percent. The spike was linked to state and federal policy changes that enacted harsher sentencing rules. 

RAND researchers found the prevalence of arrests for all Black men, both employed and unemployed, was roughly 33 percent higher than it was for white men at every age researchers examined from 18 to 35, with some evidence pointing to the gap widening even further as men reach their 30s. 

Researchers also found that Hispanic men generally have higher rates of arrest, conviction and incarceration than white men, but they did note the differences were not statistically significant. 

The bottom line, researchers said, is that unemployment services need to do more to help people cope with their criminal histories.  

“Most government programs focus on providing the unemployed with new skills in order to get them into the workforce, but if you only focus on skills development, you are missing a big part of the problem. The unemployment system almost never looks at the role that criminal history plays in keeping people out of the workforce,” said Shawn Bushway, senior policy researcher at RAND in a statement.

Businesses can also take note and make changes to how they address criminal histories on job applications by trying new, sophisticated prediction models that seek to understands the risk of recidivism, the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend, among people who apply for jobs. That could go a long way toward demonstrating the true relative risk that job applicants that have criminal histories pose.  

“Most employers believe that most people with criminal histories will commit offenses again, but that is not the case. And the risk of reoffending drops dramatically as people spend more time free in the community without a new conviction. Employers need to adopt a more-nuanced approach to the issue,” Bushway.  

According to ODPHP, the U.S. releases more than 7 million people from jail and more than 600,000 from prison each year, and formerly incarcerated people face obstacles when trying to reintegrate themselves into society, from family problems to housing, health and employment. 


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Published on Feb 21,2022

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