To Be Smart on Crime, We Need To Be Smart on Employment

By Caitlin C. Schnur, Coordinator, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Photo via The Wall Street Journal

Photo via The Wall Street Journal

With the recently-launched Coalition for Public Safety and increasing congressional chatter about prison reform, making the nation’s criminal justice system smarter, fairer, and more cost effective is a rising priority—and it should be. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Our country has only five percent of the world’s population but one quarter of its prisoners, and a disproportionate percentage of those prisoners are men of color. Many of these prisoners will return to their communities. In 2010, about 10 percent of nonincarcerated men—and 25 percent of nonincarcerated black men—had a felony conviction. At the same time, our prison system has a revolving door: more than half of returning citizens will be imprisoned again within five years.

Mass incarceration inflicts a high cost on taxpayers, communities, and families alike. We need strategies that will help prevent criminal justice system involvement and reduce reincarceration—and the research continues to demonstrate that access to employment and education can do just that. Here’s why and how efforts to reform the criminal justice system should leverage employment strategies to counter mass incarceration and reduce recidivism.

#1: Leverage Youth Employment Programming to Prevent Incarceration Before it Happens
Criminal justice reform should help prevent people, particularly at-risk young men, from entering the justice system in the first place—and that’s where employment programming is key. New evidence from an evaluation of Chicago’s One Summer Plus youth employment program shows that having a summer job can dramatically reduce violent crime among young people from disadvantaged neighborhoods: over a 16 month follow up period, violent crime arrests among youth who were offered summer jobs decreased by 43 percent compared to youth who weren’t. These impressive results suggest that employment interventions for youth can go a long way toward preventing their justice system involvement, and that’s why we recommend that criminal justice reform support efforts to expand and implement employment programs for at-risk youth.

#2: Support Pre-Release Strategies that Offer Education and Training
The prison system should be rehabilitative, and that means preparing people to be successful once they’re released.
Because the research shows that employment can make a strong contribution to reducing recidivism, we recommend that criminal justice reform ensure that education and training services are available to incarcerated individuals to help prepare them for jobs. There’s strong evidence that correctional education programs work. According to the Vera Institute for Justice, people who participate in academic or vocational education programs while incarcerated are less likely to recidivate and more likely to find jobs than those who don’t participate. Because everyone has different learning needs and vocational interests, we recommend that the justice system support a wide array of education and training programs inside-the-walls—and we’ve outlined the details here.

#3: Support Reentry Strategies that Include Transitional Jobs Programs for the Most at Risk of Recidivating
Most people reentering their communities from prison need income as soon as possible to secure housing and meet their basic needs—yet it’s estimated that up to 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are still unemployed one year after their release. That’s not surprising given that returning citizens are likely to face a number of barriers to employment, including the stigma of a criminal record. At the same time, over two-thirds of people released from prison are arrested again within three years. Engaging returning citizens in transitional jobs (TJ) has shown promise in helping these jobseekers stay out of prison while they earn a paycheck and valuable work experience. TJ participation among people recently released from prison significantly reduces recidivism rates—especially for those most at-risk of reincarceration—and can generate cost-savings to society of up to $8,300 per participant. That’s why we recommend that criminal justice reform support TJ as part of a comprehensive reentry strategy. Looking for more reasons why supporting TJ is a good idea? An earlier blog post of ours takes a deeper dive into why TJ is a savvy reentry investment and we’ve also compiled the research on TJ’s broader social and economic benefits.

Millions are already entangled in the criminal justice system and significant swaths of young people are at an increased risk of becoming involved due, in part, to lack of economic opportunity in their communities. It’s imperative that we adopt smart on crime approaches to deter crime, prepare prisoners for successful returns home, and reduce recidivism—and that’s why it’s also time we adopt a criminal justice reform strategy that’s smart on employment.

If you like what you read, check out these:
Prison Reform Recommendations 2015
How America Can Do More to Help Black Men Returning Home from Prison Find Jobs: Reflections on RecycleForce’s Trip to Capitol Hill
Healthy Relationships, Employment, and Reentry
Second Chance Act Fact Sheet



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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.

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