Transitional Work Programs for Ex-Prisoners Research Paper

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Employment has the potential to be a major point of intervention in an offender’s criminal career, particularly those who have recently been released from prison. Consequently, employment-based reentry programming has obvious appeal as a policy lever intended to slow the “revolving door” of prison. President George W. Bush (a Republican) and President Barack Obama (a Democrat) have both advocated for federal grants, under the Second Chance Act, to fund prisoner reentry initiatives with employment training provisions. This is the clearest illustration imaginable that resolving the employment challenges faced by ex-prisoners is a bipartisan issue.

From a theoretical standpoint, employment provides a means of strengthening prosocial and law-abiding behavior. Rational choice theory suggests that work experience is an important source of human capital that imposes “opportunity costs” on criminal activity. Social control theory posits that high-quality jobs are a potent source of “social capital” that can override natural temptations to violate the law. Routine activities theory proposes that working fosters changes in individuals’ “unstructured socializing” outside of the workplace in ways that channel them into better supervised settings with law-abiding companions. Strain theory proposes that lack of success in the labor market can motivate individuals to “innovate” through criminal behavior as a way to acquire valued goals or to alleviate negative feelings. Learning theory suggests that the workplace provides a forum in which individuals are exposed to a variety of “models,” “definitions,” and “reinforcements” which are conducive to law-abiding behavior.

From an empirical perspective, it is not a stretch to say that literally dozens of studies demonstrate that employment, job stability, and work quality are inversely correlated with criminal offending. While this research cannot be considered in detail in this research paper, the kinds of jobs which are most strongly correlated with criminal behavior tend to be ones in which individuals earn higher wages, work for longer duration, report higher satisfaction, and work in more prestigious occupations. Empirical research thus confirms the theoretical expectation that improvement in work prospects provides one avenue for offenders to give up criminal behavior.

The labor market, and crime prevention interventions based on it, is therefore viewed as a prominent institution in the desistance process. This research paper is concerned with a specific kind of employment-based reentry program known as transitional work. It begins with a look at the underlying rationale and historical background of this class of employment programs. It then provides a review of contemporary transitional work programs, highlighting recent experimental evidence of their (in)effectiveness. Because many of these transitional work programs have shown limited potential, a number of plausible explanations will be considered for their poor record of increasing employment and reducing recidivism. This research paper closes with suggestions for the future design and evaluation of transitional work programs.

Rationale Of Transitional Work

The rationale of employment-based reentry programming is straightforward and goes something like this: incarcerated offenders have poor work prospects, which often predate their incarceration; imprisonment substantially worsens their work prospects, in part because of stigma; and these worsened work prospects exacerbate criminal recidivism. Each of these three claims will be examined more closely.

First, individuals with a criminal record serious enough to result in incarceration have well-documented employment problems. This is due, in part, to the fact that they tend to be unskilled and poorly educated – qualities that make them unattractive to potential employers. Nationally, just 35 % of jail and prison inmates have at least a high school diploma, compared to 82 % of the general population (Harlow 2003). And the employment problems experienced by such offenders tend to be long standing. For example, Apel and Sweeten (2010) demonstrate that young people who experience their first incarceration spell exhibit unstable work histories well before they receive their first criminal conviction, compared to young people who are also convicted but are not incarcerated. Namely, they are modestly less likely to have been employed prior to conviction (60 % vs. 67 %) and work fewer weeks when they are employed (29 vs. 33 weeks). Yet a more alarming finding is that to-be-incarcerated youth show weaker attachment to legal work, as indicated by their higher probability of labor force nonparticipation prior to the conviction that led to their confinement (76 % vs. 69 %).

Second, individuals with a prison record experience deterioration in their work prospects as a consequence of their incarceration. For one, a prison record stigmatizes individuals in the marketplace. Pager (2003), for example, reports 50 % lower callback rates among job applicants who report a prison sentence on their application. Many ex-prisoners invariably discover this from their own job search experience, reporting overwhelmingly that they feel their criminal record has hindered their ability to find a job (Visher et al. 2008). Besides the stigma that ex-prisoners face in the labor market, they also accumulate substantial human capital deficiencies as a result of their incarceration, as time spent in prison is time not spent acquiring work experience. And incarceration apparently weakens ex-prisoners’ already tenuous attachment to legal work, by promoting illegal income earning and labor market dropout (Apel and Sweeten 2010).

Third, studies of the determinants of criminal recidivism indicate that employment reduces the probability of, and increases the length of time to, re-offending among recently released prisoners. For example, work by Uggen (1999; Uggen and Thompson 2003) demonstrates that ex-prisoners who spend more time employed, work in higher-quality jobs, and have higher legal earnings have a significantly lower probability of criminal behavior and illegal earnings. The obvious problem is that only 35–50 % of ex-prisoners are employed in the year following their return to the community. For example, in the Urban Institute’s Returning Home Study, less than half (45 %) of ex-prisoners were currently employed by the eighth month following release (Visher et al. 2008).

In principle, then, sustained efforts to improve the employment prospects of ex-prisoners have the potential to lower their risk of criminal behavior and at the same time give them the capacity to earn a livable wage that lessens the attraction of the illegal market. Furthermore, considering that hundreds of thousands of such individuals return to the community each year from state and federal prisons, successful employment interventions have the potential to benefit society at large by increasing tax revenue, improving public safety, and lessening the burden of correctional spending. One viable strategy to overcome the difficulties experienced by ex-prisoners in the labor market is transitional work.

Background Of Transitional Work Programs

The US Department of Labor defines transitional work in the following manner:

A “transitional job” is generally defined as temporary, paid work experience intended to improve participants’ employability, earnings, and opportunities for advancement, and to promote self-sufficiency and long-term success in the unsubsidized labor market. (Quoted from a solicitation for grant applications under the Enhanced Transitional Jobs Demonstration, posted by the Employment and Training Administration. Accessed online at pdf/SGA-DFA-PY-10-11.pdf on January 9, 2012)

Transitional work programs are rooted in the supported work model of employment services delivery. There are four key features of these programs (Bloom 2006, 2010):

  1. Temporary subsidized work in a minimum wage job for a nonprofit or government agency typically in a small “work crew” that is intended to strengthen peer support for employment. The workplace introduces graduated stress that increases the amount of responsibility expected from the trainee, who undergoes routine performance evaluations by the worksite supervisor.
  2. Work support services that facilitate on-site employment and industryor firm-specific skills acquisition including such things as transportation assistance, job coaching, and occupational skills training.
  3. Skills development that emphasizes training in “soft skills” and general “work readiness” and can include a variety of wrap-around services related to literacy educational certification, life skills, housing assistance, legal assistance, parenting skills, and substance abuse intervention.
  4. Unsubsidized job placement, which often includes an assessment of core competencies as well as resume development and job search assistance. Incentives might be made available to promote job stability and retention.

These programs thus have a dual focus on employment and employability. In other words, the “give ‘em a job” aspect of subsidized work is supplemented by efforts to strengthen the work orientation and work readiness of ex-prisoners. The most influential precursor of modern transitional work programs was the National Supported Work Demonstration of the 1970s. This program was targeted at hard-to-employ populations – welfare recipients, youth dropouts, former drug addicts, and ex-prisoners. The program was carried out from 1975 to 1980 and evaluated in ten cities across the United States. The total cost of the program and evaluation was $82.4 million, with contributions from a variety of public, private, and philanthropic agencies (MDRC 1980).

The population of interest to this research paper was the group of participants 18 years of age or older who had been imprisoned in the 6 months prior to enrollment in the program and were currently unemployed with no more than 3 months of work in the preceding 6 months (N≈1,500). Participants who were assigned to the supported work intervention were assigned to supervised work groups in such activities as building maintenance and construction. They were guaranteed 12 months of subsidized employment with a starting wage at or just above the prevailing minimum wage (with provisions for bonuses and merit increases).

The ex-prisoners in the study were a highly disadvantaged group (see MDRC 1980). They were mostly male (94 %) and African American (84 %), with a 27 % high school completion rate and just over 10 years of schooling, on average. Half of the sample had either never worked (11 %) or had not worked for more than 2 years (39 %). Almost one-third reported daily recent use of heroin (31 %). The sample was also highly criminally involved, with a mean of more than nine arrests, three convictions, and 195 weeks (3.7 years) of accumulated incarceration time.

Concerning the success of the program at increasing employment and reducing recidivism among the ex-prisoners, the influential evaluation by MDRC (1980) revealed only limited impact. At 3 months post-baseline, the employment rate for the control group was 38 % (with a mean 37 h and $139 during months 1–3), compared to 94 % in the experimental group (with a mean 144 h and $447 during months 1–3). Yet by 12 months post-baseline, the employment differential narrowed to 39 % in the control group (with a mean 53 h and $221 during months 10–12) and 51 % in the experimental group (with a mean 74 h and $277 during months 10–12). However, the differentials disappeared entirely after the 12th month. Thus, the large and statistically significant employment differential observed early in the study period was attributable entirely to the unsubsidized work offer provided to the experimental group. But the program had no lasting impact on employment.

The findings with respect to recidivism were even less favorable. Nine months after enrollment in the study, 34 % of the control group had been arrested, a figure that increased to 46 % by 18 months. Among the experimental group, the respective figures were 32 % and 47 %. Therefore, even during the early part of the follow-up period, when the experimental group was benefiting substantially from the subsidized work offer, the program had no apparent impact on criminal activity.

There were other noteworthy findings concerning the ex-prisoners in MDRC’s (1980) evaluation. First, there was a high rate of dropout from the program, as the ex-prisoners spent an average of only 6 months in the program, far less than the other high-risk groups targeted for study. A large portion of the premature dropout was attributable to being terminated from the program job, suggesting that ex-prisoners are a particularly difficult group to manage in the workplace. Second, a significant arrest differential in favor of the experimental group was found after 36 months. Because only the earliest cohorts to enroll in the study were observed for this length of time, it suggests that early enrollees might have benefited from subsidized work throughout the study period. Third, there was some suggestion from follow-up analysis that ex-prisoners over 25 years of age experienced lasting reductions in recidivism. This led some to suggest that older ex-prisoners may be more highly motivated to take advantage of opportunities to change (Bushway and Reuter 2004). However, this interesting finding was not observed among the other targeted groups in the study, rendering any interpretation of it inconclusive.

 (In)Effectiveness Of Modern Transitional Work Programs

An example of a modern transitional work program is the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), based in New York City. The CEO program has all four characteristics of the supported work model. (The ensuing description relies heavily on material provided on CEO’s website [] as well as a program description published by the National Institute of Justice [Finn 1998].) The program begins with 4 days of “life skills education” in order to establish work readiness. This includes instructional workshops related to resume writing, job search, interviewing, and workplace behavior. Following completion of the pre-employment course, participants spend 1 day with an employment specialist, who assesses the participant’s interests and develops an employment plan.

At the start of the second week, participants begin employment in a subsidized job in a crew of about 5 workers. The work involves performing maintenance, janitorial, and grounds keeping services to city or state agencies and educational institutions. Workplace supervision is provided by a CEO staff member, who provides coaching in work performance as well as enforcement of rules of conduct (e.g., punctuality, dress code, workplace behavior). Participants are paid at the end of each workday. Four days each week are spent at the workplace, while the fifth day is spent in the CEO office with the employment specialist, who provides additional coaching. When participants are deemed work ready, they are matched with a job developer, who lines up job interviews in the private sector for positions which match the skills and interests of each individual.

For a period of 6 months after participants acquire an unsubsidized job, a CEO retention specialist continues to provide work-related counseling, career planning, and job search assistance. As an incentive for stable employment in a full-time job, and for up to 1 year, monthly bonuses are made available to participants who present their pay stubs. Throughout the CEO program period, moreover, specialized programs offer training in parenting skills.

An evaluation of 2-year CEO program impacts was conducted by Redcross et al. (2009). Almost 1,000 participants were randomly assigned to either receive the full complement of CEO program services or job search assistance only. The participants were largely male (93 %), African American (64 %), or Hispanic (31 %) and had either no educational certification (42%) or only a GED certificate (43 %). While 81 % of the sample had ever been employed, just 61 % had worked for the same employer for 6 consecutive months, and only 24 % had been employed in the year prior to baseline in a job covered by the state unemployment insurance (UI) system. The average participant had over seven prior arrests (over four felony arrests), almost seven prior convictions, and had accumulated 60 months in state prison.

Examination of the filtering of the experimental group through the stages of the CEO program illustrates the challenge of retaining high-risk individuals in a transitional work program. Only 79 % completed the pre-employment course, 72 % worked in a subsidized job (for a mean 8 weeks), 57 % met with a job developer, and 30 % were successfully placed in an unsubsidized job, either through CEO or on their own initiative.

With respect to CEO program impacts on employment, the experimental group was far more likely to work in a UI-covered job (81 %) than the control group (57 %) in year one, as expected. However, the program had no impact on the subsequent likelihood of employment, as half of both the experimental and control groups worked in a UI-covered job during year two. Although not statistically significant, the experimental group did have higher UI earnings in year two than the control group ($5,167 vs. $4,670), for a difference of almost $500 in annual earnings. Apparently, the initial employment differential was attributable entirely to the subsidized job offer, as CEO had no impact on unsubsidized employment, even though monetary incentives were provided.

With respect to CEO program impacts on recidivism, the difference in 2-year arrest likelihood was not statistically significant, with 38 % of the experimental group and 42 % of the control group experiencing an arrest, a relative difference of 10 %. The experimental group also had a lower risk of conviction (31 % vs. 38 %) as well as a lower risk of incarceration (49 % vs. 55 %), differentials that were both statistically significant. The rate of incarceration for a new crime was also lower, although not significantly so, among the experimental group (14 % vs. 17 %). Interestingly, CEO program impacts on arrest and conviction were concentrated in the second year of the follow-up. For example, while there was no difference in arrest in year one for the experimental group (22 % vs. 23 %), there was a significant difference in year two (23 % vs. 27 %).

The perplexing finding from the CEO evaluation is that the employment differential was observed in year one, during the subsidized work phase, while the recidivism differential was observed in year two, during the unsubsidized work phase. Therefore, the impact of the program on recidivism was due to something other than the program’s impact on unsubsidized employment, contrary to the theoretical model underlying transitional work programs. The authors of the evaluation speculated that the extensive wrap-around services (e.g., support and guidance provided by CEO staff), and not employment per se, was responsible for the recidivism reduction (Redcross et al. 2009). Irrespective of the underlying mechanism, though, the impact of CEO on recidivism was apparently long lasting.

As it turns out, the recidivism reductions observed in the CEO evaluation are the exception rather than the rule. Yet even the results from CEO are difficult to interpret. A recent evaluation of the Transitional Jobs Reentry Demonstration yielded no program impacts on either unsubsidized employment or recidivism (Redcross et al. 2010). A meta-analysis of employment-based reentry programs performed by Visher et al. (2005) concluded unambiguously that such programs were ineffective in increasing employment or reducing recidivism. The CEO experience aside, therefore, transitional work programs for exprisoners inspire little optimism about their utility as a policy option.

Why Transitional Work Does Not Work

Transitional work programs tend to produce large in-program effects on employment and earnings, but these gains tend to be lost during the postprogram period. In fact, a year after the start of the program, transitional work participants are often indistinguishable from nonparticipants in their labor market experiences. In both cases, employment prospects remain dim. Nor is there a recidivism reduction, during either the inprogram period or the post-program period. What could possibly account for this poor track record? There are a number of possibilities, only a few of which will be considered in detail here.

First, compliance problems tend to plague field experiments of the sort evaluated in transitional work programs. Individuals assigned to a control condition can seek non-program assistance or training on their own, while individuals assigned to an experimental condition can refuse to show up for training or subsidized employment. For example, among the ex-prisoners in the National Supported Work Demonstration, 33 % were fired from their program job, and another 20 % were terminated for other negative reasons such as reinstitutionalization (MDRC 1980). Noncompliance is problematic for evaluation of the “treatment effect” of transitional work. The problem arises from the fact that the causal estimand is the “intention to treat” (ITT), that is, the causal impact of randomized offers to participate in a work program. When there is substantial noncompliance with the program conditions, the ITT can be attenuated – often substantially so – relative to the “average treatment effect on the treated” (ATT), or the causal impact of actual participation in a work program. Therefore, the failure of transitional work programs may be more apparent than real, because a substantial portion of participants are either terminated from or voluntarily leave the program.

Second, ex-prisoners face inequality in the job search process. Recall from Pager’s (2003) audit study that ex-prisoners had a substantially lower callback rate from prospective employers. Employer reluctance to hire individuals with a criminal record has also been confirmed by surveys of employers themselves. For example, Holzer et al. (2004) found that 62 % of the establishments they surveyed reported that they would “probably not” or “definitely not” have hired someone with a criminal record to fill their most recent job opening. Employer willingness to hire offenders (38 %) for low-skill positions was markedly lower than their willingness to hire welfare recipients (92 %), applicants with only a GED (96 %), applicants who had been unemployed for a year or more (83 %), and applicants with a spotty work record (59 %). Therefore, the failure of transitional work programs to improve the employment prospects of ex-prisoners could be attributable to demand-side preferences that severely penalize individuals with a prison record.

Third and finally, the time is probably right to consider the possibility that transitional work is based on a model of service delivery (and a theory of behavior change) that is outdated and outmoded, at least in the context of prisoner reentry. Visher et al. (2005), for example, lament that most of the programs in their meta-analysis are quite old. Bloom (2010) observes that transitional work programs are based to a large extent on a welfare-to-work model. While transitional work does have a good track record of improving the employment prospects of former welfare recipients, ex-prisoners represent a population with deficits that make them much harder to serve than welfare recipients. It might be that transitional work, as currently conceived, is simply not a good prisonto-work model. Furthermore, since the 1970s, when the basic features of modern transitional work programs were put into place, a much better understanding of “what works” in correctional rehabilitation has been acquired. Indeed, integration of modern correctional principles might inspire the design of future transitional work programs.


The theoretical rationale of transitional work programs for ex-prisoners is unassailable. Since exprisoners have long-standing work difficulties that are worsened by imprisonment, focused efforts to improve their employment and employability should produce lasting individual and societal benefits. Regrettably, transitional work programs have not been shown to uniformly increase employment and reduce recidivism. Indeed, evidence of effectiveness is the exception rather than the rule. And exceptional programs (e.g., CEO) tend to produce perplexing results, namely, recidivism reductions in the absence of better unsubsidized work prospects. A brutally honest assessment of the evidence therefore compels this author to conclude that “transitional work does not work,” at least not in the context of prisoner reentry and not as currently designed. Claims to the contrary are Pollyannaish.

While this conclusion might be needlessly pessimistic, there are still good reasons to believe that transitional work programs can be salvaged. Collaboration between criminal justice officials, service providers, and academic researchers can help transform good intentions into good practice, with greater fidelity to the expanding knowledge base about “what works” in the design of correctional interventions. Successful efforts are likely to involve a combination of strategies, including integration of prison-and community-based services, experimentation with a variety of financial incentives for ex-prisoners as well as employers, and systematic efforts to address substance abuse and mental health problems.

The fact that more than one-half million individuals leave the nation’s prisons each year lends urgency to a renewal of innovative employment-based strategies designed to ease their reentry into the community. Transitional work programs should be central to such efforts, and steps taken to understand why these programs are ineffective, and what can be done to make them effective, will yield dividends for future reentry policy. Such efforts promise to improve the lives of ex-prisoners, reduce their burden on the criminal justice system, and protect society at large.


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