September 1, 2015 | Commentary on Budget and Spending, Federal Spending

Do Federal Prisoner Reentry Grants Work?

The Department of Labor has released the results of its two-year evaluation of the federal Reintegration of Ex-Offenders (RExO) grants, which are designed to help ex-offenders find employment and reduce recidivism. The findings shed important insight on how the nation helps the nearly 600,000 prisoners released back into society each year.

The prognosis for these individuals staying away from crime is not good. Over two-thirds of former prisoners are rearrested within three years. Given the high likelihood that former prisoners will continue their old ways, Americans naturally assume that providing employment-focused training will help these ex-cons law-abidingly reintegrate back into society.

But the RExO evaluation provides evidence that the grants are ineffective. While disappointing, the results are not surprising: Failure is the norm for federal social programs.

The RExO program, which began in 2005, provides grants to local organizations to administer employment-focused prisoner-reentry programs. The rigorous evaluation assessed the effectiveness of federal grants to 24 local employment-based reentry programs. Almost 4,700 former prisoners were randomly assigned to program and control groups. In addition to funding from their own sources, each of the programs received over $2.9 million in RExO grants over a five year period.

The services received by the participants turned out to have only a slight effect on employment and earnings, and virtually no impact on recidivism.

One year after random assignment, the program group had a 3.5-percentage-point higher rate of working at all during the year, compared with their counterparts in the control group. During the following year, the rates of participation in work by the program group were only 2.6 percentage points higher, and this impact was not statistically significant at the traditionally accepted level. On average, the program group earned $883 more in income than the control group over the two-year period.

The services provided by the RExO grantees failed to improve upon the recidivism, convictions, and reincarceration rates of participants. Over two years, 42 percent and 43.2 percent of the program and control groups were arrested, respectively — a statistically insignificant difference. Further, the services failed to have an impact on convictions for new crimes — including violent, property, and drug crimes. Members of the program group were no more or less likely to be admitted to prison for new crimes or parole/probation violations.

The results cast significant doubt on the widespread belief that helping released prisoners find employment is the best way to keep them out of prison in the future. Unfortunately for public-policy purposes, it seems likely that nothing so straightforward is likely to suffice.

Criminologist Ray Paternoster and his colleagues are positing a new theory that the process of changing an offender’s identity from a criminal to a law-abiding citizen is a complex process that needs to precede finding legitimate employment. For instance, former prisoners need to realize that criminal offending is more costly than beneficial. Once this realization occurs, the individual can adopt a more pro-social identity, that eschews “quick and easy money,” such as theft and drug dealing, for more conventional employment.

There is some evidence to support this theory. Based on a sample of 783 recidivist males from Norway, criminologists Torbjørn Skardhamar and Jukka Savolainen found that most of the offenders gave up criminal behavior before finding legitimate employment and that becoming employed was not linked to reduced criminal behavior. Giving up on the criminal lifestyle precedes finding and maintaining employment.

If the perspective of Paternoster and colleagues is a more accurate explanation of process of giving up on crime, then helping released prisoners find employment before they are ready to give up criminal behavior may be unproductive. And this means that prisoner-reentry efforts that rely mainly on job training are not likely to succeed.

-David B. Muhlhausen is a research fellow for empirical policy analysis in the Center for Data Analysis, of the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity, at the Heritage Foundation and author of Do Federal Social Programs Work?

-This piece originally appeared in Real Clear Policy

About the Author

David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D. Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis
Center for Data Analysis