Estimates vary, but it is likely that somewhere between 60% and 75% of ex-offenders are unemployed one year after release. We do not know what proportion of this group is seeking work versus those who are discouraged or aren’t actively applying for employment. However, the unemployment rate of ex-offenders might cause you to wonder whether ex-offenders without a job are more likely to commit another crime.
One of the bedrock assumptions of many post-release or re-entry programs for ex-offenders: If you get a job for someone, they are less likely to commit another crime and the total recidivism rate will go down. This belief is so strong that it is embedded in public policy and in programs for ex-offenders both in and out of prison.
It is not exactly the responsibility of employers to ensure the fulfillment of public policy. They should not be responsible for hiring ex-offenders just to contribute to a reduction in recidivism. But if hiring ex-offenders does contribute to social justice as well as public safety, then it is more reasonable to reach out to them all other things being equal. If an ex-offender can make a good employee, the potential of social benefit is an added inducement.
The question is whether employment does indeed reduce recidivism. Based on a lot of research, the answer is a qualified “yes.” A representative piece of research from the Urban Institute indicates that having a job reduces the chance of re-arrest.
Digging deeper, however, shows that some ex-offenders are more likely to be re-arrested than others. Thus, one intuitively plausible finding is that having a job delays the time when an ex-offender is arrested. Men are more likely to commit new crimes than women, and the younger the person at first offense, the more likely they will be re-arrested. The older a person is who holds a job—the turning point seems to be about age 27—the less likely he or she is to commit another crime.
One especially interesting study proposes the socially charged concept of “redemption” for ex-offenders. The common meaning of redemption carries the powerful idea that ex-offenders’ character can change, for the better. In this study, its technical meaning is that there is an age following commission of a crime where the offender becomes statistically no more likely to commit the crime again than any other person of the same age and gender. Thus, for example, the research found that a person who committed a burglary at 18 would be no more likely than a random other person to commit that crime again by age 21.8; for robbery, the age of redemption was 25.7.
It’s very useful to note that characteristics like age at the time of arrest, length of time since discharge without further arrest, and type of crime are the kinds of factors you can research and evaluate in an individualized assessment. Given how many employers report hiring ex-offenders successfully, the possibility that employment can reduce recidivism is a great opportunity.
Not all ex-offenders are equal risks. But using the data available to you, in cooperation with your applicant, you can improve your odds of getting a good employee who happens to be an ex-offender.