- - Monday, December 14, 2015


It was one of the largest prisoner re-entry programs ever undertaken. RExO (Re-Integration of Ex-Offenders) aimed to help ex-cons find jobs, thereby reducing recidivism. Over the years, the Labor Department poured almost $743 million into the program. Only one problem: It didn’t work.

That’s the conclusion of a two-year evaluation of federal RExO grants conducted by the Department of Labor. And it’s of a piece with other findings.

This study and others deserve serious consideration as Congress works up the Second Chance Reauthorization Act, a bill that emphasizes federal funding for employment-focused re-entry programs. My own review of evaluations of prisoner re-entry programs that use random assignment — the gold standard of evaluation designs — shows that the programs tend to produce, at best, mixed results.

Consider the employment-focused program operated by the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO). It has been portrayed as a success by some, including CEO Chief Executive Officer Sam Schaeffer. Last year, Mr. Schaeffer testified before Congress that “the three-year evaluation found that CEO significantly reduced recidivism.”

“The largest impacts occurred among former prisoners who enrolled shortly after release from prison, the core group of people targeted by CEO,” he added.

CEO attempted to immediately place recently released prisoners in transitional jobs in New York City. The transitional jobs approach offers employers subsidies to encourage them to hire former prisoners. While CEO did, in fact, increase the short-term employment of former prisoners, the program was ineffective at moving prisoners into longer-term, unsubsidized employment.

The program had even less success at reducing recidivism. Overall, CEO had no impact on lowering arrest rates for ex-cons three years after their release. It was more successful at lowering conviction rates two years after release, but only for misdemeanors. There was no meaningful impact on felony convictions, and even the misdemeanor improvement disappeared after three years.

Another employment-focused program, The Transitional Jobs Reentry Demonstration, tried to replicate CEO’s “success.” While TJRD increased initial employment through job subsidies, the author of an evaluation of the program concluded: “[T]here is little evidence that the transitional jobs programs, as implemented, led to better unsubsidized employment outcomes over a two-year period. These results are consistent with the findings of other evaluations of transitional jobs programs.”

More important, TJRD failed to reduce recidivism rates when measured by arrests, convictions and prison admissions.

Supporters of employment-focused re-entry programs assume that helping released prisoners find jobs reduces recidivism rates. The causal assumption underlying this approach is that an employed ex-con will be less likely to commit crime. But rigorous studies such as those cited here cast significant doubt on this widespread belief. Unfortunately for public policy purposes, it seems likely that nothing so straightforward is likely to suffice.

Criminologist Ray Paternoster and his colleagues are positing a new theory: that changing an offender’s identity from a criminal to a law-abiding citizen is a complex process — and one that needs to occur before finding legitimate employment.

For instance, former prisoners need to realize that returning to a life of crime is more costly than beneficial. Once this realization occurs, the individual can adopt a more pro-social identity, one that eschews “quick and easy money” (from, say, theft and drug-dealing) for more legitimate employment.

There is some evidence to support this theory. A study of 783 recidivist males from Norway by criminologists Torbjorn Skardhamar and Jukka Savolainen found that most of the offenders gave up criminal behavior before finding legitimate employment and that becoming employed was not linked to reduced criminal behavior. It may seem counterintuitive, but giving up on the criminal lifestyle must precede finding and keeping a job.

If this perspective on the process of giving up on crime is correct — or at least more accurate than the prevailing assumption, then helping released prisoners find employment before they are ready to give up criminal behavior may be unproductive. And this means that prisoner re-entry efforts that rely mainly on employment are not likely to succeed.

David B. Muhlhausen is a research fellow for empirical policy analysis in the Center for Data Analysis of the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation. He is also author of “Do Federal Social Programs Work?”

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