Of the 650,000 inmates released from prisons and jails in the United States each year, as many as two-thirds will be arrested for a new offense within three years. This study evaluates the impact of enhanced job-readiness training and job-search assistance on reducing recidivism rates among ex-offenders.
Programs offering enhanced job assistance are far from the norm. The program used in this study—developed by an employment agency that assists ex-offenders, welfare recipients, and other "hard-to-serve" clients—differs from other job services in scope and focus.
The program, America Works, is condensed into an intense one- or two-week period. It uses a tough-love approach, stressing interpersonal communication and such "soft" skills as time and anger management. It places special attention on teaching practical skills that many former inmates never acquired, such as resume preparation, search strategies, and interview techniques. And it uses a network of employers, who are open to hiring ex-offenders and with whom it has long-term relationships, to place clients. Its goal is not only to help former inmates find jobs but also to keep jobs, and it provides follow-up services for six months. In 2005, the program provided job-readiness classes to 1,000 ex-offenders, placing 700 in jobs.
America Works receives referrals from agencies in New York City, including the city government's Human Resources Administration (HRA), work-release centers, and the city's Rikers Island Correctional Facility. By contrast, typical services offered to ex-offenders provide far less job-readiness training over a less concentrated period. Instead of providing placement services, such programs generally limit assistance to self-directed job searches.
This paper's key finding is that training designed to quickly place former inmates in jobs significantly decreases the likelihood that ex-offenders with nonviolent histories will be rearrested. Only 31.1 percent of nonviolent ex-offenders who received enhanced training were arrested during the 18 to 36 months in which they were tracked, compared with 50 percent of similar participants who received standard training. In contrast, former inmates with histories of violence were rearrested at virtually the same pace, whether they received enhanced training or not: 44.6 percent versus 42.6 percent, respectively. Findings for criminal convictions show similar patterns for arrests. These results suggest that extra help in looking for work upon release from jail or prison can pay off in a big way but not for all types of former offenders. Enhanced assistance is most effective for those without a history of violence and with few prior charges—while the additional help is far less effective for those with a more difficult history, including violence or many prior charges.
Very little research has been conducted on this topic. The results of this study have important implications for government policymakers, public and private social welfare agencies, and, of course, employers. Indeed, at a time of ever-tightening federal and state budgets and ever-rising costs of incarceration, the Obama administration and many state governments are seeking ways to reduce swollen prison populations, particularly the number of nonviolent criminals, partly by using new guidelines for early release. Likewise, many states are scrambling to find programs to sharply cut the number of repeat offenders.
Inmates nevertheless face formidable hurdles in securing employment following release back into society. Often lacking skills to find a job, they typically receive little help, increasing the odds, especially in a still-weak economy, that they will come up empty—and revert to a life of crime and return, eventually, to prison.
By linking enhanced training to a targeted group of ex-offenders, this study points toward a breakthrough in reducing not only the rate of recidivism but also the cost to society. The program used by America Works, which has offices in New York and six other states and the District of Columbia, costs about $5,000 for each former inmate. While the benefits to society from averted crimes are very hard to calculate in dollar terms, the study estimated average savings of about $231,000 for each nonviolent ex-offender who received extra help, based on the lower crime record posted by the group as a whole, following training. This figure represents a 46-fold return on the cost of the training, not counting impossible-to-quantify benefits to individuals involved, their families, and communities.
The intervention of enhanced services was conducted from June 2009 to December 2010, with a randomized trial involving 259 ex-offenders in New York. Participants, all men, had been released from a prison, jail, or youth correctional facility within six months of acceptance into the program. Approximately half of the participants received enhanced employment services from America Works while the other half received typical services, also provided by America Works. Criminal recidivism for 219 ex-offenders was measured from administrative records in July 2012, tracking arrests and convictions of participants in six-month intervals from the point they joined the study for up to 36 months.
Enhanced services had no significant impact on recidivism for the group as a whole. Yet that result masked significant differences among varied segments that formed the group. As previously noted, former inmates with histories of violence were little affected by the extra help while those with nonviolent histories benefited substantially. Even within the latter group, however, significant differences appeared, offering additional clues about where to focus job-training dollars.
Further exploration revealed that enhanced services had the largest impact among nonviolent criminals with the fewest prior charges. Differences were also found among the three subsets of nonviolent offenders: those who had committed offenses involving property, those who had committed crimes involving the sale or possession of drugs, and those who had been involved in minor offenses. Ex-offenders with property crimes and those with minor offenses were found to be most responsible for positive recidivism results. The subset with a history of drug crimes appeared to have no significant impact on recidivism results. Given the small samples, however, caution must be used when interpreting such results.
Collectively, these results suggest that enhanced job-search assistance is most effective for the easiest of the hard-to-serve population—and that focusing future efforts on this group is the most cost-effective approach.