Work and Reducing Recidivism: What Do We Know?

Originally Posted On The California Progressive Report

Date: April 14, 2009, http://www.californiaprogressreport.com/2009/04/work_and_reduci.html

When Dr. Lee Bowes, the CEO of America Works, and I asked that question nine years ago, we were surprised to find that we knew precious little. This question came about because we believe work is a powerful tool in rehabilitation and we were considering mounting a program for ex-offenders to test its impact.

We consulted experts and think tanks, but it was upon meeting with Professor John Diulio at the University of Pennsylvania that we decided to initiate a program. He said, ”Where welfare-to-work was when you started America Works in 1984, that’s where prison-to-work is now — practically nowhere.“ He encouraged us to start our program because of the success of our welfare-to-work programs.

Since then in New York, Oakland, Newark and Baltimore, we have placed over 25.000 ex-offenders into private-sector jobs. Take Oakland as an example: At the one year mark, the recidivism rate among our participants is 6% while the state’s is 38%.

Similar results are found in our other cities. In Newark, NJ, for instance, our recidivism rate is 2.5%. While this is very encouraging, it is by no means definitive. Self-selection of the candidates might well have skewed the results.

Therefore, America Works — with the initiation of The Manhattan Institute — has begun a control/experimental study in New York. Funded by The Smith Richardson Foundation and researched by Public Private Ventures, in two years a study determining the impact of work on recidivism will publish its findings.

The potential impact on parole reform and the rest of the criminal justice system could be staggering. As an example, if the study finds that for $5,000 we can keep someone from returning to an approximate $40,000 a year bed in a prison, the cost savings to states could be substantial. Moreover, the reduction in crime and fighting parole violations would also be significant.

In a report published in 2001, Work as a Turning Point for Criminal Offenders, Christopher Uggen and Jeremy Staff reviewed studies conducted on the role of employment in reducing recidivism. They found that “high-quality work can further reduce rates of recidivism for adult workers.” Furthermore, they summarized their research as follows: “We can reach the following provisional conclusion: Post-release employment and training programs, especially those providing jobs of moderate or high quality, are particularly promising for reducing recidivism among older and drug-involved offenders. We are hesitant to conclude, however, that work programs are as beneficial for younger offenders…We suggest further experimentation (perhaps involving pre-employment skills or work habits training) for younger offenders in the correctional population.” That is exactly what America Works is doing by participating in a study determining the impact of work on the recidivism rate.

Unfortunately, the report by Uggen and staff was not one advocates could take to the policy bank and use as a catalyst to reform our parole policies. Currently, there is just not enough hard evidence to support massive new public expenditures for parolee-to-work programs. On the other side, many argue that studies showed little or no impact of work on the recidivism rate. Further, as with our data to date at America Works, there were few control/experimental studies to fully justify a finding that work alone reduces the recidivism rate. Lastly, not one of the studies instituted a control for either the design of the treatment, or the quality of the programs that delivered the training and work.

In my 45 years in this field, the major drawback of the research by organizations like MDRC or Mathmatica, (the premiere research outfits in the social sciences on work) was their failure to study the capacities of the deliverers of the programs. It would be as if two cars, a Porche and a Volkswagen, were pitted against each other in a race with no attention to their relative capacities.

I have been mystified at the consideration given to the socioeconomic and psychic variables of the parolees, but so little to the quality of those supposedly offering the training and work. In a forthcoming article, I will address the fact that many vendors are paid to run a program, not paid for their results; thus, that is the main reason why so many fail in reducing the recidivism rate. If you pay for performance, you get results and accountability with those results. If you pay for a program without demanding a performance contract, you get a wide range of results from failure to success.

We know from empirical evidence that putting a parolee to work is a major factor in preventing recurring crime. Soon we will have the hard research evidence that proves this is the case. Finally, I predict the research will publish results stating that the way to reduce recidivism is to establish a program based on a performance contract in which the program is only paid when the offenders get jobs and remain employed.

Peter Cove is the Founder of America Works, a national company securing work for offenders, veterans and other hard to place workers.

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