Helping Individuals with criminal records Reenter through Employment

Helping Justice-Involved Individuals with Substance Use and/or Mental Health Disorders: Understanding How Laws, Regulations and Policies Affect Their Opportunities

This guide is made up of written syntheses that describe federal and state laws that hinder or facilitate reentry for justice-involved people in the following jurisdictions: Kansas, Illinois, Rhode Island, Georgia, Colorado, CaliforniaMassachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, and Federal.  There are also 1-hour webinars that review the content of each individual state synthesis. The guide and webinars were created for peer support coaches, mentors, outreach workers and others who help address the challenges faced by people with criminal records as they work to sustain their recovery and live healthy and successful lives. It also can be a valuable resource for directly impacted individuals. The guide and webinars do not provide an exhaustive account of each and every restriction, or examine in detail every initiative to mitigate reentry challenges. They do, however, provide information about the most common laws and policies that both hinder and facilitate reentry and share links to on-line and community resources that provide additional information and local support.




Each year, over 11 million people cycle through our nation’s jails, and over 600,000 people return home from prison. Millions more are arrested or indicted but not incarcerated. The end result is that over 70 million Americans have an arrest or conviction record. 

Most justice-involved individuals face obstacles that make it difficult to fully participate in society, including laws and policies that impede their access to jobs, housing and education.  People with substance use disorders confront an extra set of barriers, since drug offenses are often singled out as reasons for exclusion.

Typically, health and social service providers serving these individuals are aware of some of these obstacles.  But they lack a concise summary of the array of legal barriers to employment, housing, and education, and even more importantly, the strategies to overcome them. This guide provides that overview, including information about relatively new laws, policies and initiatives to help individuals to succeed despite criminal record-related barriers.

Criminal record screening is a standard part of the application process for employment, housing, and higher education. Applications ask about criminal convictions (and sometimes arrests), and institutions get the information directly from government databases or private consumer reporting agencies.

A major obstacle to re-entry is the widespread practice by many employers, landlords, and higher education institutions of automatically rejecting applicants with criminal records. Too often, they do so automatically and reflexively, without an individualized assessment of each applicant’s circumstances, without inquiring into the accuracy of criminal records, the severity or relevance of crimes and alleged crimes, evidence of rehabilitation or other relevant factors. Federal race discrimination laws prohibit such practices in some circumstances, and some states and cities offer anti-discrimination protections.  But there are gaps.

Federal and state statutes and policies often limit opportunities for justice-involved people to secure adequate employment, education, housing, and other elements of a successful life.  According to the American Bar Association, there are currently more than 40,000 “collateral consequences” of a conviction  However, there has been significant movement toward eliminating or easing some of these restrictions.  In July 2015, in response to the growing number of barriers to employment and occupational licensing erected by state and federal lawmakers, the White House issued the report “Occupational Licensing: A framework for policymakers.” The White House encouraged policymakers to discontinue the trend of the past two decades of enacting “unnecessary restrictions on employment, innovation, or access to important goods and servicesOne of the identified barriers was criminal record restrictions. 
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Justice for the first time ever in the history of our nation organized a National Re-entry Week, April 24-30, 2016, to raise awareness on the importance of supporting re-entry of justice-involved people.  During this week and throughout May 2016, the White House hosted several events that highlighted the need to reduce policy barriers to successful re-entry to “both increase public safety and fulfill our nation’s commitment to the promise of individual redemption.”

[i] U.S. Dep’t of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Bull. No. NCJ 248629, Jail Inmates at Midyear 2014 8 (2015),

[ii] Federal Interagency Re-entry Council, National Re-entry Week Fact Sheet 1 (2016),

[iii] Maurice Emsellem & Michelle Natividad Rodriguez, Nat’l Employment Law Project, Advancing a Federal Fair Chance Hiring Agenda 2 (2015),

[iv] Am. Bar Ass’n, The National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (NICCC),  To access NICCC, the online catalogue of collateral consequences, go here, 

[v] U.S. Dep’t of the Treasury, Council of the Economic Advisors, & U.S. Dep’t of Labor. Occupational Licensing: A framework for policymakers 3 (2015),  

[vi] Loretta Lynch, National Re-entry Week: An Essential Part of Our Mission, Huffington Post.: The Blog (2016),