Release of 6,000 prisoners could mean new additions to the workforce, not a return to crime

On October 30th, the Justice Department will begin releasing 6,000 inmates early from prisons around the country as part of a bipartisan effort that comes with sweeping new sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug crimes.

How do we prepare for one of the largest releases of prisoners in American history while ensuring they do not return to criminal activity considering roughly two-thirds of ex-offenders are arrested for a new offense within three years.

As a private employment firm America Works has helped thousands of ex-offenders find and keep jobs in the span of 30-years. This led us to team up with the Manhattan Institute, a policy think tank, to address the issue of fighting recidivism, which is more important now than ever. With The Manhattan Institute’s help, we mounted a control/experimental study to determine if work did indeed reduce recidivism and by how much.

We operated the program and an independent research organization conducted the study. The results offer a pragmatic solution: work reduces recidivism but there’s an important caveat that we must point out -- the sooner ex-offenders are employed, the less likely they will commit future crimes resulting in further jail and prison time.

We must assume, as some prisoner to work programs have, that the people can work and that whatever supports are necessary can be retrofitted into the work environment.

The study revealed that there was a 20 percent reduction in return to crime by non-violent offenders .To put the findings in context, NYU Professor of Politics and Public Policy Larry Mead said, “In most random social studies there are usually little or no positive effects. The results here are huge.”

To further supplement this study, we looked within our own prison-to-work programs in six cities across the United States. While they were not controlled studies, the results have been consistent and impressive. Statewide rates of recidivism range from about 31 to 70 percent in the first year, while the rates for those placed in jobs shortly after their release ranged from 3.3 to eight percent.

One could claim that these were self-selected to be more employable and less likely to recidivate. But in High Point, NC, only violent offenders who were identified by the police as most likely to reoffend were referred to our office for jobs. The North Carolina statewide recidivism rate was 40.7 percent, while the recidivism rate for individuals referred and placed in jobs was five percent.

Our Maryland office had equally successful results. The state’s recidivism rate hovers just over 40 percent. We found than there was zero recidivism for ex-offenders who reached six months of employment.

Take the case of Baltimore resident Wesley McCutchen.
McCutchen served more than 25-years in prison for three felony convictions. Upon his release he anticipated roadblocks when it came time to reintegrate into his hometown. He landed multiple job interviews, but background checks prevented him from securing employment. Until one day when his background actually proved to be helpful and an employer gave him a chance.

McCutchen had many skills that he acquired while serving time, which were pitched to potential employers by our team as he was interviewing for jobs. He learned to be disciplined and motivated, and most importantly, he was ready to re-start his life. Shortly after, he was hired as an overnight stocker at a major retailer and within a year he received a promotion.

How does this work and can it be replicated and go to scale?

First, work, the sooner the better. The reason welfare rolls rose before the reforms of 1996 was that publically dependent people were assumed to be unable or unprepared to work.

There were all kinds of barriers assumed by advocates that would get in the way of getting a job. Lack of training or education, drugs, day care, housing, transportation and so many other obstacles were proposed to be fixed first before work was an option.

What happened? No one went to work, and millions remained dependent on government support. When reform efforts proposed work first, supports after, the national rolls fell by over 60 percent -- resulting in major social policy achievement.

We must assume, as some prisoner to work programs have, that the people can work and that whatever supports are necessary can be retrofitted into the work environment. This will produce a working population significantly less likely to commit further crimes.

It costs up to $75,000 per year to keep prisoners locked up. To place an ex-offender into a job and keep them there ranges from $5,000-$7,500. Just on the cost savings alone, hard-strapped government should be convinced to adopt this strategy. But further, the reduction in crime and its ravaging of our communities suggests it is a policy worth spearheading.

The soon-to-be released inmates could make meaningful contributions to the workplace rather than return to crime if given work opportunities. .

As the massive release of federal prisoners begins, it would be wise for governmental authorities to take heed.