It’s hard to find work (just ask any of us graduating students!). For the approximately 3.8 million Canadians who have a criminal record, finding employment is even more difficult. Having a criminal record creates significant barriers to accessing employment, which in turn makes it difficult to access housing. A conviction for a minor crime like drug possession can have profound negative impacts on employment and housing. Without access to employment opportunities, it’s an enormous challenge to secure enough income each month to pay the rent. People who have completed their sentence, including people who were never incarcerated, continue to be punished and discriminated against because of their criminal records. 

Discrimination in the Employment Application Process 

Criminal records are enormous barriers when applying for work. Many employers ask questions such as ‘do you have a criminal record or have you ever been convicted of a criminal offence?’ in initial job application forms or during first interviews. Simply answering this question can significantly reduce the likelihood of getting a job. Many young people, whose criminal records are usually automatically sealed between two months and five years after proceedings, don’t know this and will report a criminal record on their job application form that they do not have to disclose.

In the first stage of the employment process, the employer filters out most applicants and only calls back a handful of people. According to the University of Michigan Law School, employers would call back an applicant with a criminal record only 40% of the time, regardless of the type of crime or how long ago it occurred. When employers have access to criminal record information on job applicants, they consistently take it into consideration without any context of the nature or history of the offence. Given how difficult it is to receive a record suspension (what used to be known as a pardon), someone who committed a minor crime 20 years earlier could still be turned down for a job even if they haven’t committed any crimes since! 

Employers only hire people who they believe will be highly productive. Many employers believe that someone with a criminal record will be harmful for business. The stigma of a criminal record continuously carries the stereotypes of being dangerous or violent. As a result, many employers do not want to risk hiring someone with a criminal record. 

People who are Black, Indigenous or racialized are disproportionately criminalized and represented in the criminal justice system because of systemic racism and the targeted surveillance of racialized communities. Indigenous Peoples represent 19.3% and Black people represent 8.6% of the federal correctional population. This is troublesome as national statistics show that 4.9% of the population are Indigenous and 3.5% are Black. Most importantly, multiple oppressions play a role in the employment hiring process. The Annals of the American Academy suggest that criminal records are more debilitating for those who are Black than their white counterparts; employers are already reluctant to hire Black people and adding a criminal record makes things worse. Ultimately, criminal records are more disabling for people of colour and Indigenous Peoples who face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. 

Employment Challenges and Homelessness 

For people who are un- or under-employed, experiences of poverty leave them at risk of housing precarity or homelessness as housing is very limited in its availability and affordability. The Canadian National Youth Homelessness survey found that 76% of youth did not have a job compared to 13% of housed youth. Even before getting a job, not having an address, not always having an active phone to receive call backs, not getting good quality sleep, and focusing on surviving day to day make it difficult to secure employment. If someone can find work, without housing it is difficult to maintain a routine, access transportation and work equipment (i.e. pay for uniforms, steel toe boots), and balance work hours with support service hours of operation, making it hard to keep the job. It is difficult to stay stably housed without employment and it is difficult to become and stay employed without a house. Criminal records affect people’s access to employment, which in turn affects housing accessibility. 

What Can We Do? 

The Housing First model suggests that providing housing with no prerequisites increases the possibility of exiting homelessness and staying housed. Similarly, making employment a priority increases housing stability. To improve someone’s chances of finding meaningful work, the employment sector must eliminate discrimination against people with criminal records. This can be accomplished several ways:

  • Reduce the stigma attached to people with criminal records needs: Criminal records do not provide context around the chronology or severity of the crime. Most people assume that people with criminal records commit violent crimes but 80% of Criminal Code violations are for non-violent crimes. 
  • Automatic record suspensions should be made accessible to most people with a criminal record: A record suspension removes a person’s criminal record from the Canadian Police Information Centre database once they have completed their sentence and have demonstrated that they are a law-abiding citizen. Currently, applying for a record suspension is administratively very difficult and costs $644.88, making it inaccessible for people living in poverty. By making most crimes eligible for automatic record suspensions the conviction will no longer be seen on a record. By doing so, someone with certain past criminal records will no longer bear the negative consequences
  • Implement theban the box’ campaign: This campaign advocates for questions concerning criminal records to be removed at the initial phase of employment applications. Consequentially, former prisoners would move past the initial phase of the employment hiring process. The employer would call the applicant based on their experience.
  • Effective discharge planning from corrections: programs should integrate people who were incarcerated back into the community. Discharge planning programs should provide comprehensive employment services and supports. 

The analysis and interpretations contained in this blog post are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.