What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse Update – New Content on the Effectiveness of Employment and Education Programs

March 26, 2015

The What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse (the Clearinghouse) now includes new and updated research findings on the role of employment and education programs in improving reentry outcomes. Having a job is often cited by those exiting incarceration as a key component to a successful transition back into the community.[1] Research supports this notion, indicating that having a job reduces the odds of reoffending.[2] However, the latest findings, now available on the Clearinghouse, suggest that the relationship between employment programs and reentry success is complex.

The Urban Institute reviewed evaluations of programs in both correctional-based and post-release settings. It found that of the seven Prison Industries programs meeting the Clearinghouse’s criteria for review, participants in four of the programs had better outcomes than those who did not participate in Prison Industries. However, the Urban Institute also found that the other three programs did not show evidence of effectiveness. Findings were similarly split across a review of six work-release programs, with three studies indicating better recidivism outcomes for program participants and three yielding no significant differences between program participants and comparison groups. Those programs that show evidence of effectiveness point to the importance of preparing for employment upon reentry. Findings suggest it is important for employment program administrators and service providers to consider three components in their program design to promote success at reentry:

  1. the kind of job training people receive in relation to available jobs in the community;[3]
  2. the intensity of programs, since more intensive employment programs appeared to be more effective;[4] and
  3. the use of paid wages in the program may also be an important component.[5]

As program administrators and service providers explore the best ways to connect people to employment after release from incarceration, they also look to education programs as an important part of supporting people as they reenter the community. With employers seeking skilled workers that demonstrate proficiency in basic skills such as reading and math,[6] many jails and prisons offer educational programs in addition to workforce-development services. Evaluations of these programs yield insights on what types of corrections-based education are most effective at reducing recidivism and improving job outcomes.

The Clearinghouse has recently expanded its content to include evaluations of corrections-based education programming. After a comprehensive search for studies of correctional education programs, 10 studies met the criteria for inclusion into the Clearinghouse. Highlights from this search include:

  • Two studies of post-secondary education programs found significant reductions in recidivism. A multi-site evaluation of post-secondary education programs in Indiana, Massachusetts, and New Mexico, as well as a study of Maryland’s College Program, found that participants in these programs were less likely to be reincarcerated.
  • One study suggests that Adult Basic Education classes may support improved employment outcomes. Individuals performing at below a ninth-grade level in Florida who participated in Adult Basic Education classes had higher employment rates than similar individuals who did not participate.
  • Research on the effects of GED programs and vocational training is mixed. Few rigorous studies have examined the effects of these types of programs on reentry outcomes. Only two studies of GED programs met criteria for inclusion in the Clearinghouse, and both did not demonstrate significant effects on reentry outcomes. Among the four vocational training programs included, one showed significant effects on reentry outcomes, while the other three did not. Additional research is needed to determine the specific elements of GED and vocational training programs that are likely to improve reentry success.

Together, the findings from these sections underscore the importance of post-secondary education, adult education, and workforce-development programs in correctional settings in preparing people for successful reentry and gaining employment upon release.

“It is exciting to see education added as a topic to the What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse, as practitioners and students in our network know from their experience that education is a powerful reentry strategy,” says Aviva Tevah of the New York Reentry Education Network about the Clearinghouse’s expansion. “The information in this section is valuable for corrections administrators, reentry program administrators, community-based organizations, and educators working in this field. The Clearinghouse is a resource that can help officials make decisions based on research into which kinds of programs might be best suited for their particular system.”

While the research is beginning to show promise in some areas, there is also a clear need for information about different corrections-based education and workforce-development programs. Corrections and reentry officials should be thoughtful about how their programs are structured, which population these programs target, and how these programs can be accessible to researchers who can conduct quality evaluations. Similarly, researchers should increase their attention on the range of types of programs in the field, and seek to conduct high-quality evaluations that assess the effectiveness of these programs in reducing recidivism, as well as promoting success in other areas such as employment and education.

[1] Demelza Baer, Avinash Bhati, Lisa Brooks, Jennifer Castro, Nancy La Vigne, Kamala Mallik-kane, Rebecca Naser, Jenny Osborne, Caterina Roman, John Roman, Shelli Rossman, Amy Soloman, Christy Visher, Laura Winterfield, “Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry: Research Findings from the Urban Institute’s Prisoner Reentry Portfolio,” (Washington: Urban Institute, 2006), available at http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/411289_reentry_portfolio.pdf
[2] Christy Visher, Sara Debus, and Jennifer Yahner, Employment After Prison: A Longitudinal Study of Releasees in Three States (Washington: Urban Institute, 2008).
[3] Candace Marie Johnson, “The Effects of Prison Labor Programs on Post-Release Employment and Recidivism (PhD diss.),” (Tallahassee: Florida State University, 1984).
[4] Christopher Uggen, “Work as a Turning Point in the Life Course of Criminals: A Duration Model of Age, Employment, and Recidivism,” American Sociological Review 67 (2000): 529-546.
[5]Cindy J. Smith, Jennifer Bechtel, Angie Patrick, Richard R. Smith, Laura Wilson-Gentry, Correctional Industries preparing inmates for re-entry: Recidivism a & post-release employment,(Washington: National Institute of Justice, 2006), https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/214608.pdf 
[6] Diana Brazzell, Anna Crayton, Debbie Mukamal, Amy L. Solomon, Nicole Lindahl, “From the Classroom to the Community: Exploring the Role of Education During Incarceration and Reentry”(Washington: Urban Institute, 2009), available at http://www.urban.org/publications/411963.html

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