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Can We Close the Revolving Door?

Recidivism vs. Employment of Ex-Offenders in the U.S.

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Document date: May 19, 2003
Released online: May 19, 2003

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


INTRODUCTION

The 2-3 years that many inmates spend in prison and the additional years that some violent offenders are incarcerated provides society with a unique opportunity to alter their behavior and rehabilitate them to re-enter society and the job market as productive citizens.1 Ideally, the incarceration experience should change offenders' assessment of the benefits and costs of crime in two ways. It should shift their preferences or values, so that they weigh more heavily the costs of crime on others relative to the benefits to them. And it should change the options or incentives facing them in favor of legitimate work relative to illegal activities. By altering the values and incentives of inmates, the ideal criminal justice system would release ex-offenders who would find work in the legitimate labor market and make a positive contribution to their families and communities rather than return to crime.

Data on recidivism shows that the vast majority of prisoners are not rehabilitated in these ways. Two-thirds of released prisoners are re-arrested and one-half are re-incarcerated within 3 years of release from prison (Langan and Levin, 2002).2 Rates of recidivism necessarily rise thereafter, so that upwards of 75%-80% of released prisoners are likely to be re-arrested within a decade of release. For many men aged 20-40, the prison door is a revolving one. Commit serious crime; get arrested and incarcerated; spend some time in prison; get out; commit more crimes; get arrested and incarcerated; and so on. Fifty-six percent of state prisoners released in 1999 had one of more prior convictions; and 25% had three or more convictions. Not until men reach their mid-forties does the rate of re-arrest fall noticeably.

The huge numbers of prisoners released annually—some 600,000 in 2001—and the number of other ex-offenders under probation implies that a massive number of persons who have been incarcerated or have been under supervision of the criminal justice system live in civil society, as potential participants in the job market. In 2001 there were about 3 million ex-prisoners and millions more ex-offenders released from probation in non-supervised settings. Given the high cost of crime and incarceration, almost any program that reduces recidivism will pass social benefit-cost tests.

What are the characteristics of persons released from prison and the characteristics of the larger stock of ex-offenders in civil society? How do ex-offenders perform in the labor market? How substantial is the flow of released prisoners to the labor market? Should we view the high rate of recidivism as a sign of the failure of rehabilitation or as the best we can expect given the labor market problems associated with the characteristics of inmates? What might we do to improve the rehabilitative impact of incarceration and increase the flow of immigrants?

This paper examines these questions. It summarizes the basic facts about the characteristics of prisoners and ex-offenders, the rate of recidivism in recent years, and the skill deficits and employer decisions that limit the employment prospects of ex-offenders. In addition, the paper stresses the medical problems—mental illness, physical ailments, and addictions—that afflict many prisoners and the difficulties some have in empathizing with potential victims and thus making socially acceptable moral judgments. These medical factors help explain the high rate of recidivism and correspondingly modest effects of rehabilitation programs.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


1. Prisoners released in 1994 had a mean length of sentence of 58.9 months, but they served only 20.3 months before release. See BJS, Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994, Table 1.

2. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/rpr94.pdf


Topics/Tags: | Cities and Neighborhoods | Crime/Justice | Employment


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