Posted by Maryjo M. Oster, Ph.D., Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse Staff
Paying one’s “debt to society” for criminal behavior does not end after serving a prison sentence. Incarceration has immense implications for one’s labor market prospects, and by extension, one’s economic self-sufficiency. Roughly half of all ex-prisoners remain jobless a year after their release. Many of these individuals return to criminal activity, perceiving it as their only viable option to financially support themselves and their families, which contributes to a cycle of recurring imprisonment that fails to rehabilitate offenders and harms communities.
A 2014 report by the National Research Council identified three primary mechanisms that help explain the poor employment outcomes for former prisoners: selection, transformation, and labeling. Selection refers to the fact that many of the same factors that increase risk for incarceration are also associated with poor labor market outcomes. Examples include lower levels of educational attainment and functional literacy, and increased rates of mental illness and drug addiction. No specific claims of causality can be made, given the complex interplay of psychosocial factors, but the associations are nevertheless relevant when considering the employment struggles of former prisoners. The second mechanism, transformation, refers to the experience of imprisonment that negatively affects job readiness, such as deterioration of job skills, and failure to obtain useful work experience. The third mechanism is labeling—that is, the stigmatization of ex-prisoners; many employers formally prohibit individuals with criminal records from employment, and many others employers are reluctant to hire former prisoners, even in the absence of formal legal restrictions.
Studies demonstrate that the economy could benefit substantially if the impediments to employment for former prisoners were removed. A 2010 Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) report estimated that in 2008 there were between 12 and 14 million ex-offenders of working age. Because a prison record or felony conviction greatly reduces an individual’s labor market prospects, CEPR estimated the total male employment rate was lowered by 1.5 to 1.7 percentage points. These reductions in employment resulted in a loss of between $57 and $65 billion in gross domestic product.
Improving the employment prospects and economic mobility of former prisoners is in society’s best interest. As a 2010 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts notes, “when returning offenders can find and keep legitimate employment, they are more likely to be able to pay restitution to their victims, support their children, and avoid crime.” Further, data indicate that the children of incarcerated parents suffer psychologically, educationally, and financially. A former prisoner’s ability to obtain gainful employment, therefore, has implications for the future prospects of his or her children, as well, given that educational attainment and parental income are both predictors of economic mobility.
The National Research Council offers two categories of evidence-based policy and program recommendations to improve the employment prospects and outcomes of former prisoners. The first is to implement employment re-entry programs, including transitional employment programs, residential and training programs for disadvantaged youth, prison work and education programs, and income supplements that pay unemployment benefits to released prisoners to spur economic opportunities. Their second recommendation is to limit inquiring about criminal records (e.g., the “Ban the Box” campaign to eliminate questions on job applications about previous felony convictions and/or imprisonment). Additionally, Pew finds that, while incarceration is undoubtedly necessary for some criminals, it is immensely costly and not necessary for managing many non-violent and lower-risk offenders. Pew suggests that lower-risk offenders could be redirected to high-quality community supervision programs, which reduce recidivism, enhance public safety, and are far more cost-effective.
The SSRC Library contains numerous evaluation reports and stakeholder resources on incarceration, including:
- The new scarlet letter?: Negotiating the U.S. labor market with a criminal record: This report highlights the struggles formerly incarcerated individuals face when returning to the labor market.
- Evaluating the effectiveness of correctional education: A meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults: This meta-analysis finds that correctional education improves employment prospects upon release.
- Punishment and inequality in America: This report aims to dispel myths about the relationship between crime, imprisonment, and inequality. The author also highlights the intersection between race and socioeconomic hardship following incarceration, pointing out that men of color with criminal records are less likely to be hired, and more likely to receive lower-paying jobs compared to their white counterparts.
- The effect of criminal background checks on hiring ex-offenders: This study examines the effects of “ban the box” policies for employers mandated to conduct background checks, and for those not mandated to do so, but who nevertheless conduct checks to learn more about job applicants. The study found that those who are not mandated to conduct background checks hire more ex-offenders, and that such policies increase the complexity of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals.
- Does work release work?: This study compares formerly incarcerated individuals who participated in a work release program and those who did not, finding that participation is linked with higher pay, increased likelihood of employment, and a reduction in recidivism.
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