Let's Trade Prison Beds for Work

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In the last 20 years, crime rates have fallen by nearly 50%, but there is still much room to improve. Over the same time, the country has seen stagnation in its recidivism rates (the amount of ex-offenders who are arrested again after release).

Why have crime rates dropped precipitously over the last two decades when recidivism remains high? There are several explanations for the overall drop in crime: more cops on the street, and more potential perpetrators in jails.

But there are no good explanations of why recidivism rates have not fallen. Our prison population remains the highest in the world, and the prospects remain high that a recently released offender will reoffend.

The situation has been compounded by the country’s attempts to reduce the prison population. In 2011, the State of California – in an effort to reduce the prison population – was ordered by a federal court to transfer responsibility to the counties. Recently, California Governor Jerry Brown has come under fire for creating an unsafe environment where prisoners – released under the “realignment” plan – commit more crimes.

How can we reduce recidivism? Some suggest that work – and jobs – would stem the tide of recidivism. Yet while employing an ex-offender seems like a promising strategy to keep people from going back to jail, there has been little scientific evidence to back up this proposition. Although some studies do suggest a possible link, they are limited in scope.

In May of 2012, the MDRC, a nonprofit social policy research organization, conducted a study on former inmates who had returned to work after prison sentences. The findings of the study showed that many of the 1,800 men who participated in a transitional jobs program did not stay in regular (unsubsidized) work. Many of these men also returned to prison at some point in the two years following the study. The likeliest reason for this was that the jobs were “transitional jobs” – probably created as such as because of the liberal canard that the former prisoners were too damaged to go right into regular work. Social services and make-work jobs are the go-to strategies for the welfare industrial complex, and that is the cause of such programs' failure.

A new study on recidivism for those placed directly into private-sector full-time jobs is currently being completed by The Manhattan Institute. The prison-to-work program was operated by America Works, with the results scheduled to come out later this year. We are optimistic that this study will grab the attention of policy makers.

The reason for optimism is the experience we had in the eight cities in which we operated prison-to-work programs. The results are highly suggestive of the positive effects of employment in reducing criminal activity.

In all the cities where we have operated such programs – from Oakland, California to New York City – the rates of recidivism for people we placed were drastically lower than the overall rates in each state. While statewide recidivism was in the mid 30 percent range for the first year out, the recidivism for those placed by America Works was between 4 to 8 percent. Although we do not know if those placed were similar to the statewide group, we have some indication that work was the key to the drops in recidivism.

In some cases we only engaged the most difficult of ex-offenders. In High Point, North Carolina, we placed only those who had been incarcerated for violent crimes and whom the police identified as most likely to reoffend. This group was clearly a more hardened group of offenders than those statewide. Those placed in jobs had a recidivism rate of 8 percent, while the state’s rate was 38.7 percent the year before. Clearly, work was the determining factor in the lower rates.

Implemented properly, there are significant policy implications to the effectiveness of work in reducing recidivism, and thus crime in general. At the top of the list are the costs of public safety, criminal justice and incarceration. The average cost of crime in the US is $43,750 per offense. The annual cost of incarceration averages $31,000 per bed. If you subtract the $5,000 it costs for America Works to place someone in a job – and keep them there – the aggregate savings of not committing crime is $69,750.

That figure, spread out over the entire prison population of the country (taking into account a similar reduction in recidivism as seen in the North Carolina study), could save this country almost $14 billion a year.

This would be welcome news to our hard pressed municipalities – already stretched too thin – and it would result in 200,000 less crimes nationwide and a reduction in the prison population.

Knowing this, is it not time to trade prison beds for work?

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