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Writing a Resume for Someone Who Has Done Jail Time

by Ellie Williams, studioD

Searching for a job after serving jail time can limit the types of positions available to job-seekers, but some time behind bars doesn’t make it impossible to find gainful employment. How candidates address their criminal history on a resume can strongly influence how prospective employers view them and potentially encourage them to look past a criminal record and see what the applicant can offer the company.

Use a Functional Format

A functional resume, also called a skills-based resume, is the resume of choice for applicants with a potentially troublesome work history. Begin the resume with a skills summary that highlights three or four qualifications crucial to the position. Describe experience, skills and accomplishments in these areas. Follow this with a brief work history that includes job titles, employers and dates of employment but omits job duties. This draws the employer’s attention to the skills section instead of work history and can downplay the appearance and impact of resume gaps.

Research the Company’s Policy

In some cases, applicants don’t need to address jail, especially if they served time for a misdemeanor or nonviolent offense. Some employers only want to know about felony convictions or recent offenses, such as those committed within the last five years. Other employers conduct routine background checks on all applicants, however, and will uncover even minor offenses or ones that occurred long ago. In this case, you should address a criminal record upfront rather than wait for employers to uncover it from a third party and make assumptions.

Explain the Circumstances

A prior conviction can prevent candidates from making it to the interview round, unless they demonstrate to employers they’ve accepted responsibility for the past and are committed to turning their lives around. Consider addressing past jail time in the cover letter or in an accompanying letter of explanation. This letter should briefly describe what led to the arrest, what the applicant has learned and what steps he’s taking to permanently change his life for the better.

Turn It Into a Positive

Some people use their time in jail to learn new skills or resolve the problems that led them to commit crime. Instead of ignoring incarceration, portray it as a learning or skill-building experience. Applicants who pursued education can list this in the same way they would include education completed outside the correctional system. For example, list earning a GED or taking college courses and note the dates. Those who held jailhouse jobs can also list these just as they would civilian employment. For example, for the most recent position held, list “Cook, State of Illinois,” followed by the dates.

About the Author

Ellie Williams has been a journalist since 2001. Her work has been recognized by her state's press association and by her local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Williams graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in mass communications and humanities, with minors in French and theater.

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