BEYOND THE NUMBERS
The roughly 600,000 people released from state and federal prisons every year and the many others released from local jails often face discrimination and other barriers to finding steady employment, which is central to successfully reentering their communities. Subsidized jobs programs — which provide work experience, income support, and a bridge to permanent, unsubsidized employment — can help returning individuals, reduce recidivism and reincarceration, and promote public safety. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for a new subsidized jobs program; Congress should provide robust funding for subsidized jobs in any recovery package and specify people with criminal records as a priority population.
A labyrinth of legal and social exclusion blocks formerly incarcerated people from many jobs. Employers generally resist hiring people with a criminal record, and that stigma is compounded by racial discrimination: in one study, Black men with a criminal record were the least likely of any group studied (white or Black men, with or without criminal records) to be called back for jobs.
Time incarcerated also means lost opportunity to gain work experience or build social networks, and limited options for training or education. Further, many people leaving prison or jail return to communities with limited job opportunities. Up to half of formerly incarcerated people may remain unemployed for up to a year after release. And more than half of formerly incarcerated people return to prison or jail in just a few years — 77 percent are rearrested within five years.
The challenges of reentry can be especially great for young Black and Latino men. They are vastly overrepresented in jails and prisons during the prime years of their working lives, due to racially discriminatory policing and criminal justice systems, compounded by educational disparities and other factors. On an average day, one-third of Black men aged 20-39 without a high school diploma are incarcerated.
The benefits of stable employment can be enormous, for formerly incarcerated people as well as their communities. Studies have repeatedly shown that formerly incarcerated people who get steady jobs are less likely to commit crimes. Employment helps people pay bills and secure housing and provides a sense of structure and purpose, which can help determine whether they successfully reenter their communities. And subsidized employment can help by providing them — shortly after their release — with employment-based income, valuable work experience, and a bridge to permanent, unsubsidized employment.
Decades of evidence show that subsidized employment improves wages and employment, with some promising evidence of lasting benefits, and it’s a proven tool for helping justice-involved individuals. Evaluations of the New York City-based Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), which operates programs in 12 states, found that they significantly increased employment when subsidized jobs were provided and reduced recidivism over the long term, with the greatest improvements in recidivism among those at the highest risk. One randomized control trial of CEO’s New York program found reductions in recidivism of up to 22 percent. Another successful program, RecycleForce, based in Indianapolis, has shown large positive effects on recidivism — reducing arrests, convictions, admissions to prison for new crimes, and total days of incarceration — with those positive effects continuing through the full 30-month evaluation.
Subsidized employment should be a part of an equitable recovery to rapidly connect out-of-work individuals returning from jail or prison with jobs and income, which can reduce crime and enrich communities hollowed out by high rates of incarceration.