Returning to Work After Prison

Final Results from the Transitional Jobs Reentry Demonstration

By Erin Jacobs Valentine

More than 1.6 million people are incarcerated in prisons in the United States, and around 700,000 are released from prison each year. Those released from prison often face daunting obstacles as they seek to reintegrate into their communities, and rates of recidivism are high. Many experts believe that stable employment is critical to a successful transition from prison to the community.

The Joyce Foundation’s Transitional Jobs Reentry Demonstration (TJRD), also funded by the JEHT Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor, tested employment programs for former prisoners in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, using a rigorous random assignment design. MDRC led the evaluation, along with the Urban Institute and the University of Michigan. The project focused on transitional jobs programs that provide temporary subsidized jobs, support services, and job placement help. Transitional jobs are seen as a promising model for former prisoners and for other disadvantaged groups.

In 2007-2008, more than 1,800 men who had recently been released from prison were assigned, at random, to a transitional jobs program or to a program providing basic job search assistance but no subsidized jobs. The research team tracked both groups using state data on employment and recidivism. Because of the random assignment design, one can be confident that significant differences that emerged between the groups are attributable to the services each group received.

This is the final report in the TJRD project. It assesses how the transitional jobs programs affected employment and recidivism during the two years after people entered the study.

Key Findings

  • The transitional jobs programs substantially increased employment early in the study period by providing jobs to many who would not otherwise have worked. However, the gains faded as men left the transitional jobs, and the programs did not increase regular (unsubsidized) employment either during or after the program period. At the end of the second year, only about one-fifth of each group were employed in the formal labor market. Earnings impacts may have been somewhat larger when economic conditions were relatively poor and members of the job search group had more difficulty finding jobs.

  • The transitional jobs programs did not significantly affect key measures of recidivism over the two-year follow-up period. About half of each group were arrested, and a similar number returned to prison. Most of the prison admissions were for violations of parole rules, not new crimes.

Overall, these results point to the need to develop and test enhancements to the transitional jobs model. For example, future tests could include enhancements such as extending the period of the transitional job, including vocational training as a core program component, or focusing more on the transition to regular employment by offering stronger financial incentives for participants. (Findings from the TJRD evaluation suggest that these financial incentives may improve earnings impacts.) Researchers and practitioners should also test other strategies to improve employment and recidivism outcomes for reentering prisoners.

Document Details

Publication Type
May 2012
Valentine, Erin Jacobs. 2012. Returning to Work After Prison . New York: MDRC.