Re-examining Reentry: Transitional Jobs as a Strategic Investment in Individuals, Families, and Communities

When it comes to employment, too many formerly incarcerated individuals find themselves out of a job.  It’s no secret that the United States has seen a recent explosion in its prison population—more than 2 million people in this country are incarcerated, and each year about 700,000 people are released from state prisons back into their communities.  Many of these returning citizens come home to urban neighborhoods with concentrated poverty and an array of social problems. And, as our brief about working with job seekers newly released from prison points out, these folks desperately need paid employment—many reentering individuals can’t afford such basics as clothing, medical treatment, housing, or even food.

Despite the obvious need for work, formerly incarcerated individuals face numerous barriers to employment.  In addition to limited work histories, low educational attainment, and parole-mandated curfews or mobility restrictions, more than 80 percent of U.S. employers run criminal background checks on prospective employees.  Even though “checking the box” on a job application doesn’t actually allow an employer to automatically deny a job to a former prisoner, many employers still refuse to hire individuals with criminal history backgrounds.  It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that up to 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are still unemployed one year after their release.  And, while we’re not saying that correlation implies causation, it’s also not surprising that about 66 percent of former prisoners will be rearrested within three years of their release.

It’s tempting to ignore the employment needs of formerly incarcerated individuals; in this economic climate, it’s hard enough for people with “clean” records to find stable employment.  But with overflowing prisons, crunched state budgets, and so many individuals reentering our shared cities and communities, this population’s needs demand a thoughtful and effective response.  Over here at the National Transitional Jobs Network (NTJN), we’re calling on states to consider investing or redirecting funds into Transitional Jobs (TJ) as part of a comprehensive reentry strategy for returning citizens.  We’re confident that TJ programs can yield social and economic benefits for former prisoners and the communities in which we all live.

I. Transitional Jobs Reduce Recidivism, Yielding a Positive Return on Investment
Evidence shows that participation in a TJ program can reduce recidivism among returning citizens.  In a rigorous study evaluating a TJ program run by the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) in New York City, the impacts on recidivism were significant.  For TJ participants who came to CEO within three months of being released from prison, the program reduced arrests, convictions, or incarceration by 16 to 22 percent compared to a randomized control group.

Why does this matter?  Because the costs associated with recidivism are significant and mostly paid for by our tax dollars.  Corrections expenditures alone are sky high, with state governments coughing up over $50 billion per year to arrest and incarcerate people.  In today’s struggling economy, it’s easy to imagine that this money could be better put to use elsewhere.  What’s more, recidivism’s societal price tag also includes victimization costs such as medical expenses for crime-related injuries, property damage, and lost earnings.

Implementing TJ programs for returning citizens is a positive move—and one likely to yield a positive return on investment.  Primarily by averting incarceration, for example, CEO’s TJ program produced benefits of between $1.26 and $3.85 per dollar spent, saving society about $4,900 per participant (for those recently released from prison, savings went up to $8,300 per person).  Put simply, the TJ strategy is one that pays off.

II. Transitional Jobs Increase Public Safety
TJ programs for returning citizens also increase public safety.  In addition to showing decreases in recidivism overall, the CEO study found that only 26.5 percent of recently released prisoners who participated in the TJ program were incarcerated for a new crime compared to 35.4 percent of the control group.  This statistically significant difference shows that TJ participation can result in beneficial effects for individuals and communities—individuals avoid the stress and stigma of re-incarceration, and communities are safer.

Leon Jenkins’ story, chronicled in a recent Wall Street Journal article about a successful TJ program through the Office of Reentry in Newark, N.J., provides anecdotal insight into the public safety benefits of TJ programs.  Indeed, Mr. Jenkins—tempted to return to selling heroin when he found himself unemployed and in need of money after incarceration—credits his involvement in a TJ program with leading to full-time, legitimate employment.

III. Transitional Jobs Benefit the Local Economy
TJ programs for formerly incarcerated individuals spur local economic growth.  Most folks reenter their communities with minimal financial resources and a high need for everyday basics like clothing and food—and that means that money earned is money spent, and quickly.  In fact, according to Heartland Alliance’s Social IMPACT Research Center’s evaluation of JobStart, a Chicago-based TJ program, low-income individuals spend up to 70 percent of their earned income on immediate needs and tend to shop within their own communities.

How does all of this spending advance local economies?  Enter the “economic multiplier effect,” or the idea that the demand for goods triggers, well, more demand for goods—and thus economic growth all around.  Let’s say, for example, that a formerly incarcerated individual becomes involved in a TJ program.  Now that he’s making steady income, let’s imagine he goes to a local clothing retailer to buy some new work boots and stops at the local grocery store to pick up dinner.  Thanks to our returning citizen’s purchases, the local stores have earned money and need to spend money to re-stock their goods, creating an economic ripple effect in the community.  These ripple effects can be significant.  The JobStart evaluation, for example, estimated that when TJ participants spent about $2.8 million of earned wages in the retail sector, Cook County businesses were propelled to spend $2.3 million and create 44 new jobs to support this new demand.  See?  With increased spending, growing the local economy can be simple—and TJ programs provide returning citizens with much-needed wages to infuse into their communities.

IV. Transitional Jobs Strengthen and Support Families
Finally, TJ programs for formerly incarcerated citizens strengthen and support families.  It’s indisputable that parents, especially fathers, are entangled in the criminal justice system.  According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 809,800 individuals incarcerated in this country were parents of an estimated 1,706,600 minor children in 2007.  That’s staggering—as is the fact that 92% of these incarcerated parents were fathers, who reported having about 1,559,200 minor children.  That’s a whole lot of kids whose dads aren’t around to provide their families with earned wages.  What’s more, although it’s admittedly difficult to pin down precisely how many of these incarcerated dads are involved in the formal child support system, we do know that inmates don’t earn much money and that child support arrearages keep accruing while dads are incarcerated.  The result is that there are more than 1.5 million children out there who are likely receiving little or no monetary support from their incarcerated fathers, and there are plenty of fathers who will come out of prison owing thousands of dollars in child support arrearages.

So, what happens when dad is released from incarceration with unmanageable child support debt, no income, and a criminal history that makes obtaining stable, legitimate employment a formidable challenge?  Well, for one, the inability to contribute financially and act as a provider leads some fathers to withdraw from their children, despite a genuine desire to be involved in their lives.  Mothers, not receiving necessary monetary support, may also restrict a father’s access to his children.  Moreover, fathers—like Leon Jenkins—may be tempted to resort to illicit means of earning income, risking possible recidivism.

We know that fathers can play an important role in their children’s development and upbringing, and we also know that child support is an important source of income for poor families.  This is where TJ programs, especially those that provide fatherhood services along with employment assistance, can come in.  As discussed in our brief about TJ programs for noncustodial fathers, these programs have been shown to increase participants’ child support payments.  TJ programs can also perform legal advocacy on a reentering father’s behalf to help him set up realistic and manageable child support payments so that he can support both himself and his family—a promising strategy that recasts a formerly incarcerated father as a positive role model and helps everyone get ahead.
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As recently as 2008, one in 100 U.S. adults was incarcerated—and, when these adults come home to our shared communities, many will struggle with serious barriers to gainful, legitimate employment. The Wall Street Journal article that praised Newark’s TJ program for returning citizens asked an imperative question: “How might Newark’s small-scale success translate across the country?”  The answer has to do with fiscal choices at the federal, state, and city level.  The money is out there, it’s just a matter of where and how communities direct resources.  Investing in TJ programs is a sound social and fiscal choice for individuals, families, and communities, hands down.  There’s a lot at stake, and we urge you to contact the National Transitional Jobs Network to learn more.

By Caitlin C. Schnur, Policy Intern, National Transitional Jobs Network

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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

One response to “Re-examining Reentry: Transitional Jobs as a Strategic Investment in Individuals, Families, and Communities”

  1. Margot Chrystal says :

    Katie,
    This is a great article—important and yet easy to read and understand.
    Congratulations! You are now a published author!

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