How Careful Guidance Gives Former Prisoners A New Lease On Life

America Works keeps non-violent offenders out of prison by offering job training, counseling

NEW YORK — Prison reform, including reducing recidivism, can strengthen individuals and families, and it’s a cause galvanizing both the right and left. While the intangible and unquantifiable benefits are enormous, reducing recidivism also saves taxpayers a hefty burden.

A new academic analysis from the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy shows how a relatively small investment can yield substantial results for both former prisoner and taxpayer. Through an enhanced job-training program run by an organization called America Works costing $5,000, scholars estimate average savings of about $231,000 for nonviolent ex-offenders. That is an astounding return of 46 times, a solid investment for taxpayers receiving savings on police expenses, legal and judicial bills, and prison costs.

“Very little research has been conducted on this topic,” according to authors Christopher Bollinger and Aaron Yelowitz, both economics professors at the University of Kentucky. “The results of this study have important implications for government policymakers, public and private social welfare agencies, and, of course, employers. Indeed, at a time of ever-tightening federal and state budgets and ever-rising costs of incarceration, the Obama administration and many state governments are seeking ways to reduce swollen prison populations, particularly the number of nonviolent criminals, partly by using new guidelines for early release. Likewise, many states are scrambling to find programs to sharply cut the number of repeat offenders.”

Bollinger and Yelowitz report that in the United States, more than 23 million criminal offenses were committed in 2007 triggering $15 billion in economic losses to victims and $179 billion in government spending. Sadly, of the roughly 650,000 inmates released from prisons and jails in the United States each year, the scholars report that as many as two-thirds will be arrested for a new offense within three years. However, the improved training seems to significantly benefit those with non-violent criminal histories (rather than violent criminal histories).

prisoner rehabilitation

“Only 31.1 percent of nonviolent ex-offenders who received enhanced training were arrested during the 18 to 36 months in which they were tracked, compared with 50 percent of similar participants who received standard training,” the authors wrote. “In contrast, former inmates with histories of violence were rearrested at virtually the same pace, whether they received enhanced training or not: 44.6 percent versus 42.6 percent, respectively.”

America Works, which also helps with job placement for veterans, is located in New York and six other states plus the District of Columbia. It uses what the scholars describe as “a tough-love approach,” that focuses on improving interpersonal communication and such “soft” skills as time and anger management.

“It places special attention on teaching practical skills that many former inmates never acquired, such as résumé preparation, search strategies, and interview techniques,” Bollinger and Yelowitz report. “And it uses a network of employers, who are open to hiring ex-offenders and with whom it has long-term relationships, to place clients. Its goal is not only to help former inmates find jobs but also to keep jobs, and it provides follow-up services for six months.”  

Since 1984, America Works has successfully matched over 300,000 job seekers with thousands of employers. The scholars studied the enhanced America Works services from June 2009 to December 2010, with a randomized trial involving 259 ex-offenders in New York. Participants, all men, had been released from a prison, jail, or youth correctional facility within six months of acceptance into the program. Approximately half of the participants received enhanced employment services from America Works while the other half received typical services, also provided by America Works.

The authors do place a caveat on the result because of the sample size. Digging into their results, Bollinger and Yelowitz also noted that the enhanced services had the best impact among nonviolent criminals with the fewest prior charges. They also found variation among three types of nonviolent offenders: property offenders, offenders imprisoned for sale or possession of drugs, and those with minor offenses. Ex-offenders with property crimes and those with minor offenses were found to be most responsible for positive recidivism results. The subset with a history of drug crimes appeared to have no significant impact on recidivism results.

A movement called “Ban the Box” is seeking to prevent employers from asking prospective hires whether they have a criminal history, a controversial policy opposed by employers and the broader business community. The work from Bollinger and Yelowitz shows that perhaps a better approach is transparency combined with improved training for ex-offenders. Their study reveals such an approach is just the first step, though, since it appears training for violent criminals is a much more difficult task. Yet their insights are important as policymakers continue on the path toward prison reform.

Carrie Sheffield is Senior Writer at Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.