Research on Reentry and Employment

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Neighborhoods, Recidivism and Employment Among Returning Prisoners

Jeffrey Morenoff and David Harding of the University of Michigan examined the association between neighborhood context and the outcomes related to recidivism and employment among a cohort of prisoners released from Michigan state prisons in 2003 (award number 2008-IJ-CX-00018).

Returning to a more disadvantaged neighborhood was associated with higher risks of absconding and returning to prison for a technical violation, a lower risk of being arrested, and more adverse labor market outcomes, including less employment and lower wages. Cumulative exposure to disadvantaged neighborhoods was associated with lower employment and wages but not related to recidivism. Returning to a more affluent neighborhood was associated with a lower risk of being arrested, absconding, and returning to prison on a technical violation, and more positive labor market outcomes, including greater employment and wages. Being employed substantially reduced the risk of all recidivism outcomes, but there was no evidence that employment mediated the association between neighborhoods and recidivism.

Taken together, these results suggest that the neighborhoods parolees experience during parole were strong predictors of recidivism and labor market outcomes, but there is not a simple answer to the question of what neighborhood characteristics constitute "risky" environments for parolees. This project was the first to assemble and analyze a rich dataset of administrative records on individual parolees and to link these records with data on neighborhood context.

Conviction Status Impacts the Employment Prospects of Young Men

Finding employment after being incarcerated can be an important step in a former inmate's reintegration into the community. Yet this is frequently one of the most difficult tasks former offenders undertake. Survey results suggest that between 60 and 75 percent of ex-offenders are jobless up to a year after release. [1]

Most employers are reluctant to hire applicants with criminal records. NIJ-funded research has shown that most employers are reluctant to hire applicants with criminal records. In a study conducted in New York City, for example, a criminal record reduced the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent (28 percent for applicants without a criminal record versus 15 percent of applicants with). The negative effect of a criminal record was substantially larger for black applicants. The penalty for having a criminal record suffered by white applicants was approximately half the size of the penalty for black applicants with a criminal record.[2]

Employment prospects improve when applicants interact with the hiring manager. In the New York City study, employment prospects for applicants with criminal records improved when applicants had an opportunity to interact with the hiring manager, particularly when these interactions elicited sympathetic responses from the manager. Although individual characteristics of employers were significant, the researchers concluded that personal interaction between the applicant and prospective employer was in itself a key factor in a successful hiring.[3]

About the Research

Devah Pager of Princeton University was competitively awarded funds to conduct a randomized field experiment in Milwaukee to identify the barriers that former offenders face when seeking employment shortly after their release from prison (award number 2002-IJ-CX-0002). Pager and her colleague Bruce Western of Harvard University were awarded funds to replicate the study in New York City (award number 2005-IJ-CX-0019). Both studies produced similar results.

The researchers sought to determine how employers responded to applicants who were equally qualified but varied by race, ethnicity and criminal record (assigned randomly by the researchers). Matched teams of testers applied for hundreds of entry-level jobs. Testers were matched according to a number of criteria (e.g., verbal skills, physical attractiveness and interaction styles). They were assigned fictitious resumes and passed a common training program to ensure uniform behavior in the interviews.

In 2010, Scott Decker of Arizona State University (award number 2010-MU-MU-0004) was funded to replicate the experiment a third time, with several enhancements, including testing the online application process.

Further Reading

Potential for Redemption in Employment in an Era of Widespread Criminal Background Checks

It can be difficult for someone with a criminal record to find employment. More than 80 percent of U.S. employers perform criminal background checks on prospective employees.[4]

Is there a point at which a former offender should be considered "redeemed" for employment purposes and relieved of the handicap imposed by his or her stale criminal record?

Researchers Al Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura believe there is and that when that point is reached, a potential employer should no longer consider an ex-offender's record relevant. Why? Because at that point, an ex-offender is no longer more likely to commit a crime than other similar individuals of the same age in the general population.[5]

The concept of redemption or the expungement of a criminal record has important implications beyond employment. A redemption date or expungement of a criminal record may be relevant to other aspects of daily life, such as the ability to get public housing, receive certain public benefits, and obtain admission to and financial aid for college.

About the Research

Blumstein and Nakamura's method for estimating when redemption occurs depends on two factors: the arrestee's age at the time of the first arrest and the type of crime committed. In their first study, based on an examination of 80,000 rap sheets for individuals first arrested in 1980 and after in New York, they found that, in general, the younger an offender was when he or she committed the first offense, the longer he or she had to stay "clean" to reach that redemption point.

The actuarial model created by Blumstein and Nakamura provides empirically based guidance for employers and others to help them determine the point at which a former offender poses no greater risk of recidivating than any other demographically similar person. At that point, Blumstein and Nakamura argue, the ex-offender's criminal history is no longer relevant.[6]

Results from the Redemption Follow-up Study
Blumstein and Nakamura's first study demonstrated that redemption time estimates could be calculated for former offenders. The question then was how accurate these estimates were.

The team engaged in a second study to test the estimates. This research effort involved analysis of New York data from two additional sampling years, 1985 and 1990. Rap sheets from two other states, Illinois and Florida, were added and analyzed from the same sampling years. The results confirmed that original redemption time estimates, based on the 1980 New York rap sheets, held and were reasonably accurate. Not only were the earlier results confirmed, but this effort permitted the researchers to build on the initial findings in other ways.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance for employers on how to use criminal records to screen job applicants. Employers must demonstrate that a criminal record is "job related." This suggests that employers must understand whether the prior crime type is a meaningful indicator of the type of crime that is of most concern in the context of the job opening. Focusing particularly on violent and property crimes, often an employer's primary concern, this research provided empirical evidence that prior crime type is associated with recidivism type. This was particularly true for violent offenders, and the association was more prominent for older offenders. The association diminished as time since the prior offense increased. That is, a redemption estimate can be calculated based on the amount of time "clean" since the prior incident. These findings provide support for employers who, when making a hiring decision, must evaluate the likelihood that an applicant will commit a job-related offense.

Finally, researchers explored another aspect with policy relevance. Because of racial differences in arrest rates, employers' use of criminal background checks as a screening tool is of great concern to the EEOC. The arrest prevalence for blacks is more than four times higher than the arrest prevalence for whites. In contrast, the risk of rearrest for blacks is about twice the risk of rearrest for whites shortly after their first arrest. So the racial rearrest-risk ratio is about half the arrest-prevalence ratio. Thus, it is important that employers recognize that the arrest prevalence difference does not provide a meaningful estimate of risks posed by white and black applicants with a criminal record, and that, after a long period of time clean, their risks become similar.

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Further Reading


[1] See Petersilia, J., When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2003; Travis, J., But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry, Washington D.C.: Urban Institute Press, 2005.

[2], [3] Pager, D., and B. Western, "Investigating Prisoner Reentry: The Impact of Conviction Status on the Employment Prospects of Young Men" (pdf, 136 pages), Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, October 2009, NCJ 228584. The report includes several related articles published in academic journals.

[4] Burke, M.E., 2004 Reference and Background Checking Survey Report: A Study by the Society for Human Resource Management, Alexandria, Va.: Society for Human Resource Management, 2006.

[5], [6] Blumstein, A. and K. Nakamura, "Potential of Redemption in Criminal Background Checks" (pdf, 58 pages), Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, November 2010, NCJ 232358.

Date Modified: April 3, 2013