New Berkeley Law Study Finds Formerly Incarcerated Women Face High Hurdles to Employment

For Immediate Release

Contact: Susan Gluss, media relations director, 510.642.6936

To view the full report, go to

Berkeley, CA – February 20, 2009… In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law have documented the challenges faced by formerly incarcerated women in securing a job. Although women comprise the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, until now research about the effects of incarceration on employment opportunities has been limited to men.

Authors of the new report, “A Higher Hurdle: Barriers to Employment for Formerly Incarcerated Women” found that formerly incarcerated women were 31 percent less likely to receive a positive response from an employer compared to women with no criminal history. “The results of this study confirm anecdotal evidence; formerly incarcerated women have a harder time finding work,” said study co-author Michael Sumner, Ph.D., research manager at the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law.

In conducting the study, researchers created similar resumes and sent them in pairs to Bay Area employers who had advertised job openings.  For each job listing, one resume in the pair included a period of incarceration, the other did not.  When the resume indicated a recent period of incarceration, the positive response rate was 5.5 percent.  For resumes that did not reveal recent incarceration, the positive response rate was 8 percent.

The pairs of resumes sent to the employers also hinted at the race or ethnicity of the applicant.  Resumes submitted by African American women received the lowest positive response rate.

Researchers conducted one-on-one interviews and focus groups with 40 formerly incarcerated women, both employed and unemployed.  During those sessions, the women expressed frustration that current laws barred them from holding jobs in nursing or childcare.  A criminal record was also a bar to securing public housing or student loans, support that formerly incarcerated women particularly needed to stretch their limited resources and give them opportunities to learn trades and skills.

Many women felt that their incarceration was a stigma that was impossible to overcome. As a result, they avoided jobs that required a background check.  One of the study’s participants summed up the experience of the group: “I’ve applied to over 200 jobs and got three calls back. They’ll tell you if they’re going to do a background check, and I don’t apply to those jobs.  I don’t want to deal with that.  About half of the jobs listed will do a background check, and I don’t apply to those jobs100 percent of the time.”

African American women bore the biggest brunt of the bias.  Underscoring the results of the resume study, African American women felt that prospective employers used a criminal record as a substitute for race.  Older formerly incarcerated women reported obstacles related to their age, long histories of abuse, and extended or recurring periods of incarceration.  Younger formerly incarcerated women felt that their lack of formal work experience compounded their inability to find a job.

Because finding and keeping a job are central to avoiding recidivism, researchers say that the findings of “A Higher Hurdle” should prompt policymakers to re-examine laws that bar formerly incarcerated individuals from holding jobs in nursing and child care—jobs that have traditionally been held by women.

“Many formerly incarcerated women want to find legitimate jobs and care for their children and families,” says the study’s lead author Monique W. Morris, former director of research at the Henderson Center for Social Justice.  “It is unfair, discriminatory, and against our collective interest to allow criminal records to prevent women from rebuilding their lives.”

The report’s authors encourage policymakers to consider adopting and strengthening laws that permit criminal records to be sealed and expunged under certain circumstances, ban discrimination based on criminal history alone, and restrict the use of background screening to only the most sensitive occupations.

The women who participated in the study expressed a desire to have an opportunity to show how they had changed for the better. As one woman said: “I was young, I got caught. I needed some money and made a bad mistake.  I’m trying to change my life right now, and I’m asking for this opportunity.”

An advisory committee comprised of Bay Area formerly incarcerated women and those who work with formerly incarcerated women assisted in the “Higher Hurdle” study.

The Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law fosters creative scholarship that examines the law through the lens of social justice. Established in 1999, the center works in partnership with communities to educate the public on issues of social justice.  For more information, go to

NOTE: Wilda White, executive director of the Henderson Center, can be reached at 510.643.5402 or cell 510.407.0700 or  Dr. Michael Sumner, research manager, can be reached at 510.642.6395 or