About 700,000 federal and state prisoners return home each year in America, and most soon commit more crimes. A 2002 Department of Justice study found that over 67 percent of released prisoners are rearrested within three years; about half, in the same three years, get locked up again. Recidivism—the propensity of ex-offenders to be rearrested, reconvicted, or reincarcerated—has long vexed policymakers. What’s new is that the current recidivism rate is high (5 percentage points higher than in the 1980s) and that prison expenditures are crippling state budgets. It’s unlikely that social scientists will soon agree on either the cause of high recidivism rates or a large-scale way to reduce them. But mayors around the country are promoting a small-scale response: government-run “reentry” programs that seek to assimilate ex-offenders into society. The programs’ approaches vary, but many adopt a philosophy called “work-first”—that is, getting ex-offenders jobs quickly.

Mayors have begun to experiment with work-first reentry for several reasons. One is that the older reentry model—an expensive cornucopia of social services for ex-cons, including housing assistance, drug treatment, family counseling, therapy, and support groups—hasn’t succeeded. Another is that foundations—and, more recently, the federal government—have been embracing the employment model.

A third reason is the success of welfare reform in encouraging work among the formerly dependent. During the heyday of welfare reform, people thought to be unemployable because of minimal education or poor skills were moved into work by a focus on job placement instead of social services. The labor market, it turned out, could absorb large numbers of new entry-level workers, and many welfare recipients were willing and able to work, once meaningful incentives were in place. Why shouldn’t the same principle apply to ex-cons?

It’s true that they face real obstacles to employment. An estimated 40 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons do not have a high school diploma or GED. Most have scant legitimate job experience or work history. Ex-offenders are banned from many types of work and are required to disclose their criminal records on many job applications. But employer attitudes about hiring former convicts often depend on whether they apply for work independently or go through a job-placement agency. Intermediaries who place and support ex-offenders find that businesses are actually more willing to hire their clients, in many circumstances, than to hire non-offenders. “If you get the men right as they are coming out of jail, they have learned to take orders,” explains Peter Cove of America Works, a for-profit company that places hard-to-serve clients. “What employers see are people who are willing to work, and frankly, who will do some of the jobs that other people are unwilling to do, such as heavy lifting.”

The mayor-led reentry effort in New York City, called Employment Works, relies on private-sector intermediaries, such as the highly regarded Center for Employment Opportunities, to place probationers in jobs that pay relatively well—$9 an hour and up. The city’s goal is to place 500 to 600 probationers in jobs each year and to achieve job retentions of at least a year. About 29,000 people are sentenced to probation in New York City annually, and about half are unemployed, so the program will have ample opportunity to test its effectiveness.

Chicago’s reentry program, run out of the Mayor’s Office of Community Development, also relies on private intermediaries to place ex-offenders, but its approach is different. Its scale is significantly larger than New York’s—it seeks to employ more than 1,000 clients each year—and it’s open to all ex-offenders, not just probationers. The city works to place clients in private- and public-sector jobs. For instance, it worked closely with the Safer Foundation of Chicago to get clients hired on city work crews, initially in waste-management positions. When waste management became more automated, the city joined with Safer to form the Community Ambassadors Program, which employs former convicts as tree trimmers and ground-maintenance workers. “We are giving back to the communities we once tore down,” says Abraham Ramos, one of the program’s supervisors and an ex-offender. “My crew feels good about going to work, and the work makes them feel good about themselves.”

It may not take a Chicago-level multimillion-dollar budget to run a reentry program, however. Mayor Cory Booker is dealing with a reentry problem of considerable size: every year, 1,600 or so ex-cons return from state prison to Newark, a city that (despite recent improvements) continues to suffer from high crime, high unemployment, and a laundry list of urban ills. When Booker came into office in 2006, the city faced a $180 million budget shortfall. So rather than starting with a big, stand-alone reentry initiative, Newark folded its ex-offender work programs into the city’s broader workforce initiatives: a service center at Essex County College, where at-risk populations get help with job training and placement; the One Stop Career Center in Newark, which identifies job opportunities and provides training for city residents; and a new Port Career and Business Development Center, where Newark residents can seek port employment. The mayor hired a small, able staff to assess the reentry situation. For several years, it studied other cities’ efforts, tracked what happens to prisoners once released, developed relationships with departments and agencies, and established performance benchmarks. This modest strategy held the city over until more funding turned up. Now, with a recent infusion of federal and foundation money, the mayor’s staff plans to put its research to use and implement an aggressive work-first initiative. (City Journal’s publisher, the Manhattan Institute, is working with the Booker administration on this project.)

Several random-assignment studies of work-first reentry programs are currently under way, and their preliminary findings are encouraging. For example, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation’s latest report on New York’s Center for Employment Opportunities indicates that those placed in jobs within three months after release are significantly less likely to have their parole revoked, to be convicted of a felony, and to be reincarcerated. True, most studies of recidivism rates are studying volunteer participants in work programs, raising questions of self-selection. Perhaps the kind of people who choose to enter work programs would be less likely to reoffend even without the benefit of the programs themselves.

The most serious potential weakness of work-first reentry programs, in fact, is that they are usually voluntary. Welfare-to-work programs, in contrast, required work from welfare recipients. The great majority of ex-offenders do not participate in work programs, and those who do are generally free to leave. While work is frequently a condition of parole, parole officers are seldom part of the job-placement process and are not committed to its achievement. New York University professor Lawrence Mead, a leading welfare-reform scholar, suggests a possible solution: get the criminal-justice system (and possibly the child-support system) heavily involved in work-entry efforts. Parole officers, like welfare caseworkers before them, could be invested in a “culture of work” that stresses the value of employment and getting ex-cons into the workforce. Mead recommends, as a first step, pilot programs that require work for ex-offenders and punish unemployment with tough sanctions.

In the meantime, though, mayors’ piecemeal programs deserve support. Ex-cons’ churning from prison to society, and then back again, exacts a heavy human toll, from the suffering of people in the low-income neighborhoods where crime is concentrated to the devastating effect on families when fathers cycle in and out of prison. City budgets feel the impact, too, from the expense of rearresting criminals and policing high-crime neighborhoods to the cost of social services (released prisoners often end up in homeless shelters). And the crisis is about to get worse: as federal and state governments feel the pinch of the tough fiscal climate, they likely will make cuts in prison populations. More ex-convicts will move from prisons into communities, and the number of potential criminals will go up. Locally delivered employment programs may not end recidivism—but they may be able to diminish it.


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