Employment for justice-involved people: barriers and solutions

Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the United States: 8.2 percent of the state’s population is in prison or on probation. For justice-involved people, it can prove extraordinarily challenging to reintegrate into society – in particular, to find employment and housing – because they face not only social prejudice but also significant legal and policy hurdles.

As part of their participation with the Lobeck Taylor Community Advocacy Clinic at The University of Tulsa College of Law, Kate Forest, Kelsey Harrison and Emily Turner conducted a study examining the barriers to employment for such individuals. Their report – Increasing Job Opportunities, Improving the Economy, Investing in Oklahoma – was commissioned by Workforce Tulsa and released in Tulsa on February 25, 2019.

Key findings

One of the study’s key findings is that hiring justice-involved people is a safe investment. These individuals, the students found, are reliable, productive and loyal.

Despite these facts, justice-involved people in Oklahoma face substantial barriers to employment. The major obstacles are employer discrimination, complex expungement practices, occupational licensing regulations, excessive wage garnishment for child support and fees and fines related to incarceration and barriers to housing. When justice-involved people have difficulty finding and keeping a job, their families and communities suffer social and economic consequences, such as recidivism, lost economic output and worker shortages.

Proposed solutions

Forest, Harrison and Turner propose several solutions to overcoming these barriers. Their recommendations include the following:

  • Legislation allowing Certificates of Rehabilitation
  • Creating incentives for employers to hire justice-involved people
  • Reforming the expungement process
  • Continuing to improve licensing requirements
  • Providing education about child support mitigation
  • Establishing risk-mitigation funds for landlords.

At the launch event for the report, journalists heard from Shelley Cadamy and Martha Webb-Jones, the executive director and board chair, respectively, of Workforce Tulsa. TU’s president, Dr. Gerard Clancy, also addressed the gathering, speaking about the looming “talent crisis” across the United States and reinforcing the need for “better policies and practices” for justice-involved people: “We need to get everyone that can work to work.”

TU Law student Kelsey Harrison responds to reporters' questions
TU Law student Kelsey Harrison responds to reporters’ questions

Following the formal presentations, Harrison then spoke at length with the media, answering their many questions about the nature of the problem she and her colleagues addressed and the solutions they proposed. Media coverage of the report was extensive, with stories appearing in the Tulsa World, on NPR, Channel 2 and Channel 6.