Study shows certificates work to create job opportunities

A new empirical study provides important evidence that “certificates of recovery/relief” can be effective in facilitating employment opportunities for people with a criminal record.  Two University of South Carolina criminologists have concluded that employers in Ohio are willing to look beyond the criminal histories of job applicants who have been issued a Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE) from a state court. The study, which involved sending fictitious resumes to over 300 employers in the Columbus area, found that individuals with a felony drug conviction were more than three times as likely to receive a job interview or offer if they had received a CQE.

Although the study’s findings are described as preliminary, they fill an important gap in our knowledge of the effectiveness of Ohio’s CQE, and by inference of similar certificate schemes in other jurisdictions.  Such schemes have to date been justified on the basis of assumptions and anecdotal evidence, with little hard data to vouch for their potency.  The abstract follows:

Securing stable, quality employment is one of the most robust predictors of desistance from offending. Yet, obtaining gainful employment is difficult for ex-offenders due to the stigma of a criminal record. In recognition of employment-related barriers to re-entry, some state legislatures have created certificates of recovery/relief, which lift occupational licensing restrictions, limit employer liability for negligent hiring claims, and aim to ensure employment decisions about certificate-holders are made on a case-by-case basis. The present study presents the results of the first empirical test of the effectiveness of such certificates. Using an experimental correspondence design, fictitious applicants applied to entry-level jobs advertised in the Columbus metropolitan area using fabricated resumes with identical names, educational backgrounds, employment experience, and skills. Because the only differences between the resumes were the type of criminal record and the presence of a Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE), the results isolate the specific impacts of criminal records and certificates on employment opportunities. Results indicate that, for job seekers with a one-year-old felony drug conviction, having a certificate of recovery increases the likelihood of receiving an interview invitation or job offer more than threefold. Importantly, certificate-holders and their counterparts with clean criminal backgrounds were equally likely to receive an interview invitation or job offer.


These promising results, while only a small sample, suggest that certificates of recovery/relief may be an effective avenue for lessening the stigma of a criminal record for ex-offenders seeking employment.  The findings are striking because even though an Ohio CQE removes mandatory collateral consequences and protects employers from negligent hiring claims, Ohio law (unlike New York’s) does not require employers to give CQEs any effect at all.  It seems, then, that “forgiveness-based” models of criminal record mitigation, which acknowledge a person’s criminal history while appropriately contextualizing it, can do far more to enhance employment prospects than many have supposed.  The results of the study may be surprising to those who favor a “forgetfulness-based” model, which relies on limiting public access to a person’s criminal history.

Similar judicial certificate schemes exist in California, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New York (whose certificate has served as a model for many states), North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Vermont.  Though the legal effect of these certificates varies widely from state to state, they are generally intended to serve as an official acknowledgment of rehabilitation that can be relied upon by employers.  (Our 50-state comparison of the consideration of criminal records in licensing and employment, available here, provides an overview and comparison of the certificate laws of each state.  Further detail can be found in individual state profiles.)

Although there is no federal certificate law, U.S. District Court Judge John Gleeson (now retired) crafted and issued his own Certificate of Rehabilitation earlier this year in lieu of expunging the conviction of a woman he had sentenced years earlier who was unable to find lasting employment.  Judge Gleeson wrote in his order:

The forgiveness model, which preserves the public record of a conviction, is gaining favor in the reentry community for both functional and philosophical reasons. . . . Where expungement relief is unavailable or otherwise unhelpful, I believe a certificate of rehabilitation can significantly alleviate the collateral effects of a criminal record by emitting a powerful signal that the same system that found a person deserving of punishment has now found that individual fit to fully rejoin the community.

Although the University of South Carolina study gives reason for optimism that employers in states with robust certificate schemes are receiving these “powerful signals” and acting accordingly, the national picture may not be quite so rosy.  Recent studies on the effectiveness of New York’s certificate scheme that were based on anecdotal and interview evidence suggest that the state’s certificates are falling short when it comes to encouraging employment opportunities, notwithstanding the independent effect given them in New York’s nondiscrimination law.

You can read more about Ohio’s Certificate of Qualification for Employment (and other Ohio relief mechanisms) in our Ohio guide to restoration of rights.  Our 50-state comparison of the consideration of criminal records in licensing and employment, available here, provides an overview and comparison of the certificate laws of each state.


Margaret Love

Margaret Love is CCRC's Executive Director. A former U.S. Pardon Attorney, she represents applicants for executive clemency in her private practice in Washington, D.C.. She is lead co-author of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction: Law, Policy, and Practice (4th ed. 2021), and served as an advisor to the ALI Model Penal Code: Sentencing.

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