April is Second Chance Month, but given the COVID-19 pandemic, this is no ordinary April. In response to safety concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19 in correctional settings, federal, state, and local officials have taken steps to reduce jail and prison populations. One such step is early release for certain individuals, such as those who have limited time remaining on their sentences, have no prior record, or are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. In the current economic context, how will those being released support themselves financially upon their return to their communities?
In the short term, evidence points to the value of providing immediate support through cash assistance. Longer-term, however, employment will represent a critical component of both economic self-sufficiency and, for some, compliance with the conditions of their release. Even under more typical conditions, job seekers with prior justice involvement struggle to find and keep employment due to employer discrimination, occupational licensing restrictions, and lack of formal work experience. Additionally, releases during an economic downturn typically yield increases in criminal activity and re-incarceration. COVID-19 clearly compounds the challenges returning citizens will face trying to find employment after incarceration. What policy and program options might communities look to at a time like this, and what can rigorous evaluation and evidence review add to these efforts?
Last year, for the U.S. Department of Labor, I summarized the literature on employment-focused reentry programs. While most interventions studied to date do not consistently lead to long-term improvements in both labor market and justice involvement outcomes, there are several important directions for policy and research that have heightened importance in the current context:
- Test career pathways approaches with the reentry population to meet demand for specific industries and assess the model’s applicability. At Abt, we’re building a growing evidence base on career pathways programs, which train low-income populations in high-growth fields. Rigorously testing these approaches with justice-involved individuals specifically is an important next step. (It is important to note that many states deny occupational licenses in certain fields to individuals with criminal records. These restrictions include fields such as health care and substance use disorder counseling, which are likely to continue to be growth occupations as healthcare systems and communities cope with COVID-19 and its aftermath for months to come. Reforming these policies would enable the expanded labor force resulting from early releases to meet increased demand for workers in these fields and support rigorous evaluation of these demand-driven training approaches.)
- Test the impact of trauma-informed cognitive-behavioral therapy models on reentry employment outcomes. Some of the most promising evidence on reducing recidivism is on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) models, but studies completed to date have not examined their impact on labor market outcomes. Given the layered trauma of both incarceration and release into COVID-19’s unprecedented global context, evaluating approaches to address thought patterns that can inhibit successful reconnection to work is of particular relevance right now. Abt’s ongoing evaluation of a CBT curriculum’s impacts on employment will provide early evidence on this strategy as practitioners consider its use in a COVID-19 context.
- Replicate and refine existing evidence to target longer-term improvements in reentry outcomes. For example, the reentry employment literature includes numerous evaluations of transitional jobs programs, which generally demonstrated short-term improvements in labor market and justice involvement outcomes that faded once transitional jobs ended. More recently, however, Abt and our partners tested refinements to this program model in the Enhanced Transitional Jobs Demonstration, which found longer-term improvements in both labor market outcomes and some justice involvement outcomes. These effects were concentrated among those at the highest risk of recidivism. As communities implement interventions to improve employment outcomes for those released due to COVID-19, rigorously testing their application will provide opportunities for replication studies and model refinements.
In the midst of the difficulties posed by reintegrating people released early into their communities, there is a critical opportunity to move forward with potential solutions for improving reentry employment outcomes. Research and evaluation are essential for this task.