People who leave prison when there are more construction and manufacturing jobs available are better able to reintegrate into society and break the cycle of crime and incarceration. But a boost in food service and retail jobs at the time of a prisoner''s release does not have a similar preventative effect.
These are the central findings of new research by Kevin Schnepel, published in the February 2018 issue of the Economic Journal. His study analyses the relationship between the jobs available on release and re-offending among nearly two million prisoners released in California over a 15-year period.
The results imply that the total number of released prisoners returning to prison in California would have been 10% lower had there been no decline in low-skill manufacturing jobs through the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The research notes that most individuals leaving prison have a hard time securing stable employment: the majority – around two thirds in the United States – return to prison within three years of release. But what if the likelihood of recidivism is influenced by the state of the local labour market at the time of release?
Skill- and industry-specific data on the number of newly hired employees each quarter in each county across California allow the author to measure the number and type of job opportunities when an individual returns home following an incarceration spell.
Specifically, leaving prison when there are more construction and manufacturing jobs available is linked with reductions in crime. A boost in food service and retail jobs at the time of release, by contrast, did not have a similar preventative effect.
These results are not surprising given that employment is often cited as a critical turning point in the lives of former criminals. Recognising this relationship, governments, non-profits and the private sector alike are launching programmes and policies aimed at improving employment opportunities to reduce recidivism.
While the effectiveness of many of these efforts is not yet known, the results from several large-scale randomised trials in the United States surprisingly temper any expectation of a substantial reduction in crime associated with the provision of transitional employment opportunities to the formerly incarcerated (see Cook et al, 2015).
At first glance, the findings of the new study seem to contradict the research evaluating the impact of transitional jobs. But taking a more comprehensive view, both sets of results strongly suggest that the type of job is perhaps the most important, often overlooked, factor when evaluating the causal relationship between work and crime.
The transitional jobs provided by employment-focused re-entry programmes, as well as work in the retail and food service industries, typically pay wages that are often at (or near) the minimum wage. If a released inmate is comparing the returns from illegal versus legal activity, a job paying the minimum wage just may not be enough to deter the illegal choice.
Another study by Harvard Law School professor Crystal Yang (2017) complements these new results by finding reductions in crime among released prisoners when low-skill wages increase.
Given the research trends and findings, an important question arises for policy-makers: how can we increase the quality, and not just the quantity, of legitimate work opportunities for released prisoners? That solution might make all the difference in keeping offenders out of prison for good.
''Good Jobs and Recidivism'' by Kevin T. Schnepel is published in the February 2018 issue of the Economic Journal. Kevin Schnepel is at the University of Sydney. This summary draws directly from an online commentary by Kevin Schnepel available at: https://wol.iza.org/opinions/can-jobs-reduce-recidivism
Other key studies:
Cook, Philip J., Songman Kang, Anthony A. Braga, Jens Ludwig and Mallory E. O''Brien (2015) ''An Experimental Evaluation of a Comprehensive Employment-oriented Prisoner Re-entry Program'', Journal of Quantitative Criminology 31(3): 355-82.
Yang, Crystal (2017) ''Local Labor Markets and Criminal Recidivism'', Journal of Public Economics 147: 16-29.