Why Hasn’t Prison Education Led to Better Employment Outcomes in D.C.?

(Updated Below)

According to the Council for Court Excellence (CCE), an estimated 60,000 people in the District of Columbia have criminal records (this is roughly one in every ten persons), and about 8,000 of them return to the city each year after serving their sentences. Unfortunately, half of these individuals will end up back behind bars within three years of getting out.

Reducing recidivism improves public safety and strengthens communities, and is therefore a worthy policy goal. And the research tells us that one of the best ways to accomplish this is to provide inmates with access to education and training while they are in prison.

But it appears that education and training for incarcerated D.C. residents isn’t going to be enough unless we significantly reduce barriers to employment once people are out of prison.

Las year, CCE released a report on the employment challenges facing previously incarcerated D.C. residents after they are released. The report was based on the results of a survey of 550  formerly incarcerated individuals. Among the key findings: there was little or no difference in employment rates for those who earned a GED or job certificate before or after prison and those who did not:

The unemployment rate among survey respondents was about the same after incarceration as it had been prior to incarceration, even among those who used their time in prison productively to increase their skills. Over 30% indicated that they received a GED or higher in prison and 35% indicated receiving a job training certificate of some kind. CCE’s sample showed little or no difference in the unemployment rate for those who had earned a GED or job certificate in or after prison compared with those who had not. (my emphasis)

This finding is at odds with the findings of another recent recidivism study from another jurisdiction, conducted by Jake Cronin, a policy analyst with the Institute of Public Policy in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri.

Cronin studied Missouri Department of Corrections data and found that inmates who earned their GED in Missouri prisons were significantly more likely to find a job after release from prison than those who did not.

But Cronin also noted that recidivism rates went down most dramatically for those inmates had earned a GED and acquired a full-time job after release.

“Employment proves to be the strongest predictor of not returning to prison that we found,” Cronin said. “Those who have a full-time job are much less likely to return to prison than similar inmates who are unemployed. Recidivism rates were nearly cut in half for former inmates with a full-time job compared to similar inmates who are unemployed.”

It makes sense to me that education plus sustained employment has the most lasting impact on reducing recidivism. But in Missouri, at least, attaining an educational credential appears to increase the likelihood of employment, whereas in Washington it may have no effect at all. So the question is whether there are other significant barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated individuals here in the District—other than education—that may not be as prominent in Missouri. And if there are, what do we do about them?

I’ll concede that the biggest barrier to employment for many people these days is the lack of jobs to begin with. I’ll also concede that part of the problem may be that the jobs that do become available in the District may, on average, require more specialized training or post-secondary education than the jobs that are available in Missouri. (I don’t know that for certain, but it seems reasonable.) Nonetheless, there are also policies that can be put in place to make it easier for those returning from prison to find a job, and to encourage employers to hire them.

For their part, the Council for Court Excellence (CCE) believes that barriers to employment unrelated to education do exist, and in their report, they made several recommendations to address them, including, among other things, liability protection for employers and a “certificate of good standing” indicating that an individual has completed his or her sentence and is in good standing with conditions of release.

These two recommendations are the centerpiece of recent bill, the D.C. Re-entry Facilitation Amendment Act, introduced by D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson on July 10th.

UPDATE 9/27/12: My original headline (Why Hasn’t Prison Education Reduced D.C. Recidivism Rates?) was all wrong—I was making a point about employment outcomes, not recidivism rates—and was updated accordingly.