Urban Institute nonprofit social and economic policy research

Employment and Reentry

The Urban Institute has explored the nexus between employment and prisoner reentry through a Reentry Roundtable the Returning Home study, and an impact evaluation of the Opportunity to Succeed (OPTS) program During the May 2003 Reentry Roundtable, national experts examined policies, practices, problems, and incentives involved in connecting returning prisoners to legitimate, marketable employment. In addition, the Returning Home study explores issues related to employment by documenting the prerelease expectations and postrelease work experiences of prisoners in Illinois, Maryland, Texas, and Ohio. Finally, a process and impact evaluation of the multisite OPTS program illuminated the importance of employment and related services for returning prisoners.

Recent Findings from the Urban Institute on Employment and Reentry

  • While prisoners believe that having a job is an important factor in staying out of prison, few have a job lined up after release. The vast majority of Returning Home respondents felt that having a job would help them stay out of prison; however, on average, only about one in five reported that they had a job lined up immediately after release (see supporting text 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
  • Despite the need for employment assistance, few prisoners receive employment-related training in prison. Several studies have shown that the vast majority of prisoners cite assistance finding employment as one of their greatest needs after release (see supporting text 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). However, only about one-third of Illinois and Maryland Returning Home respondents reported participating in an employment readiness program while in prison, and far fewer reported participating in a job-training program in prison (one-quarter of Maryland respondents and only 9 percent of Illinois respondents). One-quarter of prisoners in Virginia (2002) participated in vocational programs while in prison, as did 6 percent in New Jersey (2001) and 1 percent in Georgia (2002).
  • Participation in work release jobs in prison may have a positive impact on the likelihood of finding full-time employment after release. Respondents in the Maryland and Illinois Returning Home sample who held a work release job in prison were more likely to be fully employed and had worked more weeks after prison.
  • Case-managed reentry services may increase the likelihood of finding and maintaining employment after release from prison. The Opportunity to Succeed (OPTS) evaluation found that participants who interacted with their case manager were more likely to report full-time employment and maintain employment for a longer time than those receiving no case management.
  • Participation in outpatient substance abuse treatment is associated with full-time employment. OPTS Program evaluation found that higher levels of A/A and N/A participation among OPTS clients were associated with increases in full-time jobs.
  • Prisoners who do find work after release do not necessarily have full-time or consistent employment. When interviewed four to eight months after release, 44 percent of Illinois Returning Home respondents reported having worked for at least one week since their release. However, less than a third (30 percent) of respondents were employed at the time of the interview, and just 24 percent of all respondents were employed full-time (40 or more hours per week). At their first postrelease interview, 56 percent of Maryland respondents were either unemployed or were working fewer than 40 hours a week.
  • Transportation is a significant barrier to employment. In the OPTS evaluation, more than a third of the respondents reported having difficulty obtaining a car for work or emergencies and nearly a quarter reported various difficulties accessing public transportation. Former prisoners in a focus group in Rhode Island also cited transportation challenges as a barrier to employment as well as access to services.
  • Finding and maintaining employment may reduce recidivism. The OPTS evaluation found that an increase in levels of employment was a predictor of reductions in drug dealing, violent crime, and property crime. Returning Home findings show that Illinois respondents who were unemployed were more likely to be reincarcerated after release.