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Working to Reduce Recidivism: Employment as the Key to Offender Reintegration

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Consider the statistics:
  • Between 600,000 and 700,000 inmates are released annually.

  • Two-thirds of them will be re-arrested within three years after their release.

  • More than half of all people leaving prison or on probation are unemployed.


Most professionals agree that reducing recidivism is the key to alleviating the stress on our overburdened correctional system. The prescription for reducing recidivism is simple enough in theory, though it is complex in practice. It is a multi-step, intensive process that is carried out by organizations and committed professionals every day:
  • Help former inmates to secure their basic needs such as housing and health care.



  • Encourage ex-offenders to get their General Equivalency Diploma (GED) and to improve their skills and qualifications.

  • Give them information on basic budgeting and finances.

  • Encourage them to use all of the community resources at their disposal.

  • Provide job search assistance that meets their specific needs.
Professionals who work with ex-offenders say that jobs are the key to reducing recidivism. The New York Department of Labor found that 83% of offenders who violated probation or parole were unemployed at the time. Steady employment provides much more than a paycheck. It bolsters ex-offenders’ work experience and teaches much-needed skills, as well as keeping them from returning to the “informal economy” that got many of them incarcerated in the first place. In building up their training and work history and earning the respect and recommendations of their employers, ex-offenders stand the best chance of successfully reintegrating into society, moving up the career ladder, and living a satisfying and crime-free life.

Unfortunately, finding a job—already a difficult process for many—is an even steeper uphill battle for ex-offenders. In addition to financial barriers, transportation issues, and mental and physical health concerns, ex-offenders face the stigma of their records, and employers often see them as too risky to hire. According to one study, only 12.5% of employers say they would accept an applicant with a criminal record. Ex-offenders have to work extra hard to convince employers that they are dependable and committed and eager to learn on the job. To do so, ex-offenders need coaching on job search techniques specific to their needs and circumstances.

The truth is that most job search materials on the market don’t speak to the concerns faced by ex-offenders. Most job search books fail to address the barriers that ex-offenders face; offer unrealistic expectations for the kinds of jobs that are available to them; and assume access to resources that ex-offenders simply do not have, such as reliable transportation, strong writing skills, or the internet. Ex-offenders need resources geared specifically to them—resources that address their concerns and keep them focused on realistic objectives. Such resources take tried-and-true job search and career management strategies and apply them to the unique circumstances faced by ex-offenders in their quests to reintegrate.

Ex-offenders face feelings of alienation and despair. They tend to be less skilled and less educated than other workers, and thus feel disempowered. They need hope, and that means taking the long view on what it means to be successful and how to get there. It means starting at the bottom and working their way up. It also means having the right resources from the moment they leave the prison walls and make their ways to a brighter future.

Dave Anderson is the editor of Quick Job Search for Ex-Offenders (JIST, 2008) and the Offender Reintegration Scale (JIST, 2008).
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