Can Employment-Focused Programs Reduce Reincarceration Rates?

By ·June 29, 2018
Texas A&M University

The Issue:

Two-thirds of those released from prison are arrested again within three years. Breaking this incarceration cycle is a top policy priority, but it is unclear which programs are effective at achieving this goal. Those who are employed are less likely to reoffend, and this correlation has led many to think that increasing access to jobs could be the key to reducing recidivism.

The Facts:

  • There are several ways in which employment may impact the odds that a person who has been released from prison winds up being incarcerated again. For instance, if someone cannot find well-paying, legal employment, they may resort to illegal activity to make ends meet. Similarly, employment may provide beneficial structure to one's day, and access to peers who are positive influences. On the other hand, more disposable income could increase drug or alcohol consumption, which could in turn increase criminal activity and raise the likelihood of a person being arrested.
  • Studies have found that individuals are less likely to reoffend if they happen to be released at a time when the local low-skilled labor market is strong and when well-paying entry-level jobs are available. For instance, a study of the impact of local labor market conditions on criminal recidivism found that being released to a county with higher low-skilled wages significantly decreases the risk of recidivism. Using administrative prison records on four million offenders released from 43 states between 2000 and 2013, the study found that the impact of higher wages on reducing recidivism was larger for both black offenders and first-time offenders, and in sectors that report being more willing to hire ex-offenders. A similar study that focused on California found that increases in construction and manufacturing opportunities at the time of release reduced recidivism for recently-released offenders. But other types of entry-level jobs that typically pay lower wages, such as retail or food service, did not affect recidivism.
  • People with criminal records may need help overcoming obstacles to employment. Field experiments have measured the effect of a criminal record on getting a job interview. To do this, researchers typically submit job applications from fake applicants, selecting at random which applicants have a criminal record. Those studies show that private employers are reluctant to hire people with criminal records: ex-offenders were only one-half to one-third as likely as non-offenders to be considered by employers in one study and, in another, employers that asked about criminal records were 63 percent more likely to call applicants with no criminal record for an interview than otherwise equivalent applicants who listed a criminal record. In order to address the issue, it is important to determine whether employers are discriminating against those with a criminal record due to stigma based on the criminal record itself, or because having a criminal record serves as a signal of other characteristics that are unobservable at the application stage (such as less work readiness or a predisposition to violence or dishonesty). If it is the latter, then interventions that improve work-readiness or aid employers in identifying work-ready applicants could increase employment for this population.
  • One approach to overcoming these obstacles to employment is through transitional job programs, which provide temporary, subsidized employment designed to transition hard-to-employ individuals (including people with criminal records) into private sector jobs. These programs typically provide 6 months of paid, full-time work at a non-profit organization, with an emphasis on improving soft skills such as reliability and interpersonal skills. Even if the programs do not actually improve participants' skills, successful completion of the program could provide a positive signal to employers (that is, program completion could serve a valuable screening function).
  • However, a number of large randomized controlled trials have measured the effects of transitional job programs on subsequent employment and recidivism, and the results have been disappointing. Studies of the Transitional Jobs Reentry Demonstration, which took place in Midwestern cities, and of the Center for Employment Opportunities evaluation, which took place in New York City, found large increases in employment for the treatment group during the 6-month program period. However, employment rates rapidly dropped to the level of the control group as soon as the transitional job was no longer available. In other words, the programs do not appear to have facilitated a successful transition into private sector employment. Results on recidivism were somewhat mixed. The Transitional Jobs Reentry Demonstration had no significant effect on recidivism. The Center for Employment Opportunities evaluation, on the other hand, showed the program significantly reduced misdemeanor convictions by 31 percent. But neither program produced significant reductions in more serious criminal behavior or total days incarcerated (see this study for a summary of both evaluations). An evaluation of a program that paired wrap-around services — providing a wide variety of supports to participants — with a transitional jobs program found that it produced a similar short-term increase in employment that fell as soon as the program ended. The program aimed to increase employment for recently released offenders in Milwaukee. Individuals who participated in the transitional jobs program and received the wrap-around services were significantly less likely to be arrested after release than those who only received existing services, but this effect was relatively small (65 percent vs. 73 percent arrested after 12 months), and there was no significant effect on the likelihood of being re-incarcerated.
  • Evaluations of other employment-focused interventions have also been disappointing. One respected employment-focused reentry program targeting recently-released offenders provided a variety of services to help individuals find employment in the private sector — including job readiness training, vocational training, a computer lab, and job placement services. In order to evaluate the effectiveness of the program, participants were randomly assigned to the program or to a group that received a list of community resources and a free meal. The study found no significant effects of the reentry program on employment, recidivism, or housing stability.
  • How do we reconcile these results with the research showing that being released during a strong low-skilled labor market reduces recidivism? A key takeaway of those studies is that access to good jobs — not just any jobs — reduces recidivism. That is, only jobs in industries that pay well, such as construction, seem to be effective. Additional support for this explanation comes from recent research showing that being released when the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is more generous or when the minimum wage is higher — up to $9.50/hour — reduces recidivism. It may be that transitional jobs pay too little to prevent an individual's return to criminal activity. Another possible reason that targeted, employment-focused reentry programs have failed to reduce recidivism may be that working alongside other recently-released offenders has negative peer effects that getting a private sector job avoids. And finally, it could be that stronger labor markets reduce recidivism by making the friends and family of recently-released individuals better off. That is, those with criminal records might not be getting jobs themselves, but their networks might be better able to support them when the local economy is thriving.

What this Means:

Strong low-skilled labor markets appear to reduce recidivism, but several studies show that simply giving people a job through a transitional jobs program is ineffective. It appears to be difficult to mimic the power of strong labor demand through targeted interventions. Moving forward, it may be helpful to look beyond employment. Individuals who cycle through the criminal justice system have many needs that limit their work-readiness and drive continued criminal activity. Focusing interventions on those other needs, such as substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, or housing, could be more successful.


Crime / Crime and Criminal Justice / Employment
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