More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, and around 700,000 are released from prison each year. Those who are released face daunting obstacles as they seek to reenter 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, is testing employment programs for former prisoners in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, using a rigorous random assignment design. MDRC is leading the evaluation, along with the Urban Institute and the University of Michigan. The project focuses on transitional jobs (TJ) 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 (JS) assistance but no subsidized jobs. Both groups are being followed using state data on employment and recidivism. Random assignment ensures that if significant differences emerge between the two groups, those differences can be attributed with confidence to the different types of employment services each group received.
This is the first major report in the TJRD project. It describes how the demonstration was implemented and assesses how the transitional jobs programs affected employment and recidivism during the first year after people entered the project, a period when the recession caused unemployment rates to rise substantially in all four cities. Key findings include:
- The TJRD project generally operated as intended. The TJ programs developed work slots and placed a very high percentage of participants into transitional jobs. About 85 percent of the men who were assigned to the TJ programs worked in a transitional job, reflecting a strong motivation to work. On average, participants worked in the TJs for about four months.
- The TJ group was much more likely to work than the JS group early on, but the difference between groups faded as men left the transitional jobs; overall, the TJ group was no more likely to work in an unsubsidized job than the JS group. The programs provided temporary jobs to many who would not otherwise have worked, but at the end of the first year, only about one-third of the TJ group — about the same proportion as in the JS group — was employed in the formal labor market.
- Overall, the TJ programs had no consistent impacts on recidivism during the first year of follow-up. About one-third of each group was arrested and a similar number returned to prison. Most of the prison admissions were for violations of parole rules, not new crimes. In one site, the transitional jobs group was less likely to be reincarcerated for a parole violation.
These results point to the need to develop and test enhancements to the transitional jobs model and other strategies to improve outcomes for former prisoners who reenter society. They also raise questions about the assumed connection between employment and recidivism, since there were no decreases in arrests even during the period when the TJ group was much more likely to be employed. This is not the final word on the TJRD project; both groups will be followed up for another year, with two-year results available in 2011.
More information is available on The Joyce Foundation's Web site.