Hiring Ex-Offenders: Time For a Different Approach


It has long been an article of faith in corrections that full-time, legitimate employment is one of the most important goals for offenders.

Judges and parole boards order offenders to get a job. Probation and parole officers work to help them find good jobs.

As a goal, it makes great sense.

A steady income is required to meet some many of the basics of life—food, housing, support for dependents— not to mention being able to successfully comply with the myriad financial obligations imposed on offenders as the result of their conviction.

Work also helps to reduce recidivism. It occupies a significant portion of the offender's day in gainful pursuit, leaving less unstructured leisure time to hang out with pro-criminal peers and get into trouble. And being gainfully employed fits well into core values of our society: earn a living; support yourself and your family,;pay taxes; and generally be a productive member of the community.

In their longitudinal study of crime over the life course, Sampson and Laub[i] revealed that employment was one of three dominant factors (along with marriage and military service) in explaining desistance – why and how people stop committing crimes. Obtaining and maintaining employment was critical to turning away from crime over the long term.

The evidence suggests that connecting offenders to stable, long term jobs is important.

It should be no surprise, then, that we have tried many different programs to increase offender employment in the hope that we can reduce recidivism. The offender population poses some particular challenges: a disproportionately higher rate of unemployment and under-employment, poor to non-existent work record, minimal marketable job skills and for many, a poor attitude toward legitimate employment.

Add to these the many legal barriers, along with employer skepticism abouthiring offenders, and it is not hard to see why this is such an enormous challenge.

The search for effective recidivism reduction strategies has increased in this era of “evidence-based practices.” We all seek to identify and replicate programs which have a record of effectiveness.

For those searching for offender employment programs, the recent news has not been good.

Marilyn Moses of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) recently authored an article[ii] that reviewed the results of eight major evaluations of job preparation and placement programs funded by NIJ and other federal agencies since the 1970s. .

Recidivism was not reduced, and in some instances it increased.

This dismal information about effectiveness may come as a surprise to many, since we don't seem to have given up on this type of program. Following close on the heels of the Moses article came an article in the New York Times about a program to help ex-offenders start their own businesses (NYTimes).

This training and mentorship program matches motivated, entrepreneurial offenders with businessmen. Some of the traits and characteristics that made these offenders successful at the drug trade, for example, will serve them well in a legitimate business. It is too soon to tell whether this approach will work, but hope springs eternal.

The lack of success with employment programs suggests to me that perhaps we are missing something crucial.

What is the answer to the offender– employment–recidivism conundrum? What are the relationships and correlations that we need to understand to create the right results?

As Moses says, “(T)he relationship between employment, job placement or assistance and crime desistance is more complicated than it appears.”

While I don't have all the answers, it seems to me that part of the solution is a better understanding of what drives recidivism.

In their work on the psychology of criminal conduct, Andrews and Bonta identified “criminogenic risk factors” or drivers of criminal behavior.[iii] These factors lead people to commit crimes.

At the top of the list of these factors are anti-social, pro-criminal attitudes, values and beliefs. This means that offenders have a way of thinking, a world view and set of values that are sympathetic to and supportive of crime. The way they think about life, relationships, desires and decisions takes a different course than law-abiding citizens.

This mindset is generally not supportive of legitimate employment and the behaviors required to sustain it over the long term.

The relationship of this “criminal thinking” mind set to employment was well-illustrated recently by Ed Latessa of the University of Cincinnati.

Addressing a room full of corrections and parole practitioners, Latessa said, “If you or I lose our job, it isn't very likely to result in a crime.”

Facing a room of highly pro-social state employees, Latessa saw many heads nodding in agreement.

“But for an offender,” he noted, “it is a different set of responses, based on a different way of thinking about work.”

Offenders lack the same strong connection to work and a career, often seeing traditional jobs available to them as mundane, boring and for “chumps.” As a result, loss of a job is likely to lead to a much different set of outcomes.

Recognizing this criminal mindset or “criminal thinking” is important, for it must be addressed and changed if the offender is to have a decent shot at obtaining and keeping a good job. Job retention is often a bigger challenge than the securing of a job.

When the routine of work sets in, with its inevitable challenges and deferred rewards, the offender without a positive attitude and strong commitment to work is likely to quit. An individual with a pro-social mind set and values will hunker down and get the job done, and may look for another, more satisfying job before quitting the current position.

With the evidence that employment is a strong desistance factor, it is natural that judges, parole boards and corrections officials are anxious to see that offenders are employed.

I attended a meeting recently to discuss a reentry program under development for high risk, violent offenders. In the meeting were a judge and several corrections and human services officials.

They literally did not want to talk about anything but how the program would get jobs for the offenders. The importance of dealing with the pro-criminal mindset, the attitudes, values and beliefs that drive offender decision-making was pushed aside until a job could be guaranteed for each released offender.

The risk that we run when taking the approach of jobs first is that we will send offenders to work without the preparation and skills they need to cope with the contemporary workplace. The likelihood of the offenders in such a scenario retaining the jobs is low.

That experience can sour an employer's willingness to take a chance on an ex-offender and can further erode the offender's tentative commitment to legitimate work. In addition to vocational counseling and job preparation services, we need to expend the resources and take the time to ensure that the offender we send out to work is as ready as possible and has the right mindset to succeed in the workplace.

If we don't, it is unlikely that the next review of the effectiveness of offender employment programs will be disappointing, as well.

EDITORS NOTE: for the sources cited in footnotes above, please click HERE

William D. Burrell is an independent corrections management consultant specializing in community corrections and evidence-based practices, He was a member (2003-2007) of the faculty in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia and earlier served for 19 years as chief of adult probation services for the New Jersey state court system. Bill is chairman of the Editorial Committee for Perspectives, the journal of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) and serves on APPA's Board of Directors. He has consulted, and developed and delivered training for probation and parole agencies at the federal, state and county levels. He welcomes reader comments.

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