Almost 700,000 people are released from state prisons each year. Ex-prisoners face daunting obstacles to successful reentry into society, and rates of recidivism are high. Most experts believe that stable employment is critical to a successful transition, but ex-prisoners have great difficulty finding steady work.
This report presents interim results from a rigorous evaluation of the New York City-based Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a highly regarded employment program for ex-prisoners. CEO participants are placed in paid transitional jobs shortly after enrollment; they are supervised by CEO staff and receive a range of supports. Once they show good performance in the transitional job, participants get help finding a permanent job and additional support after placement.
CEO is one of four sites in the Enhanced Services for the Hard-to-Employ Demonstration and Evaluation Project, which is sponsored by the Administration for Children and Families and the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), with additional funding from the U.S. Department of Labor. The project is being conducted under contract to HHS by MDRC, a nonprofit research organization, along with the Urban Institute and other partners.
The impacts of CEO’s program are being assessed using a rigorous research design. In 2004-2005, a total of 977 ex-prisoners who reported to CEO were assigned, at random, to a program group that was eligible for all of CEO’s services or to a control group that received basic job search assistance. So far, the two groups have been followed for two years after study entry.
- CEO’s program operated smoothly during the study period, and most program group members received the core services. More than 70 percent of the program group worked in a transitional job; the average length of that employment was about eight weeks.
- CEO generated a large but short-lived increase in employment; the increase was driven by CEO’s transitional jobs. By the end of the first year of the study period, the program and control groups were equally likely to be employed, and their earnings were similar.
- CEO reduced recidivism during both the first and the second year of the study period. The program group was significantly less likely than the control group to be convicted of a crime, to be admitted to prison for a new conviction, or to be incarcerated for any reason in prison or jail during the first two years of the study period. In Year 1, CEO reduced recidivism only for those who came to the program within three months after their release from prison; in Year 2, however, the program reduced recidivism both for recently released study participants and for those who were not recently released at study entry.
The study will follow the two groups for a third year, but the results so far show that CEO’s program reduced recidivism, even after the employment gains faded. Decreases in recidivism have rarely been found in rigorous evaluations. Further research is needed to identify approaches that can produce more sustained increases in employment and earnings for ex-prisoners.