Mar 16, 2009

Working On, Well, Work

One of the focus areas for our Task Force is workforce development and broadening employment opportunities for reentrants.

Back in 2002, Bruce Western (currently a professor of sociology at Harvard University) wrote an article about the impact of incarceration on wage mobility and inequality. As we know, an individual's ability to earn progressively higher amounts of money through their life course depends on stable employment in career jobs. In other words, we are able to build our own and our family's wealth over time when we are continuously employed in jobs that offer advancement over time.

Western's research suggests that "incarceration reduces ex-inmates' access to the steady jobs that usually produce earnings growth among young men. ... Because incarceration is so prevalent [among certain minority groups] ... the effect of imprisonment on individual wages also increases aggregate race and ethnic wage inequality." Not only do those incarcerated experience an earnings loss for the family when they are incarcerated, but the experience of incarceration then affects their ability to secure gainful and career-path employment when they are released.

Scaling up to the community level, Western points out that incarceration rates are so high for particular groups (typically urban, brown and black men) that the effects of incarceration lead to broader wage and race inequalities. As Western says, "the prison boom may have increased inequality by supplying the labor market with low-skill minority ex-inmates who remain mired at the bottom of the wage distribution."

One reason why reentrants have difficulty securing employment post-release is an employer's stigma that somebody with a criminal record would be untrustworthy as an employee. [Other reasons include the erosion of a person's job skills due to time out of the labor market; the fact that incarceration may make pre-existing mental or physical illnesses even worse, affecting work outcomes for somebody who is employed; and the breakdown of social contacts that offer leads on job opportunities.] In fact, previous research has shown that employment is positively correlated with criminal desistance -- in other words, having a job is the best way to prevent future criminal activity.

Moving forward, our workforce efforts will include some attempt to address the misconception that hiring reentrants is a risky proposition. What the research shows is that hiring reentrants can actually improve public safety, which in turn generates a better business environment. Some open questions for us include:

  • What can we do to help ease this misconception among employers uptown?

  • What unique activities will help us humanize the face of reentry to those in the position to hire reentrants?

  • What are the best arguments for why hiring reentrants is good for the bottom line?

Stay tuned for more updates on how we'll try to do this -- and please send back feedback if you've managed to do this successfully in your own jurisdictions!