Ex-offenders and the labor market

Kris Warner and I have a new paper (pdf) out today on the impact that the large and growing population of ex-offenders has on the US labor market.

First, we estimate the size of the ex-offender population. Based on several different methods, we conclude that there are about 6 million ex-prisoners and about 13 million ex-felons. Together, ex-prisoners and ex-felons make up the the total population of ex-offenders. The two groups don’t overlap completely, primarily because some ex-felons have never been to prison. (Some were sentenced to probation, others to local jails, where stays are typically shorter than those in state and federal prisons.) As a result, our best estimate of the total ex-offender population is basically the population of ex-felons, which we put at between 12.3 milion and 13.9 million.

Bar graph of various criminal justice populations

Source: CEPR.

Next, we estimate the effect that this large population (more than 90 percent of whom are men) on total employment in the United States. Having a prison record or a felony conviction substantially reduces a person’s chances of finding a job, even after factoring in that former prisoners and felons usually struggled in the labor market even before coming in contact with the criminal justice system. (See the depressing story highlighted in Michelle Singletary’s last two Sunday columns in the Washington Post, for example.) Our calculations suggest that, in 2008, the large ex-offender population lowered employment in the United States by 1.5-1.7 million workers. Assuming that ex-offenders are only half as productive as the average worker, these employment losses cost the overall economy $57-63 billion a year in lost output.

UPDATE 11/30/2010: The Los Angeles Times cites our paper in a good story today on the labor-market problems facing ex-offenders. The paper’s “Money & Company” blog also has a post today specifically on our report.

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