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The effect of private sector work opportunities in prison on labor market outcomes of the formerly incarcerated (Cox 2016)

Absence of conflict of interest.

Citation

Cox, R. (2016). The effect of private sector work opportunities in prison on labor market outcomes of the formerly incarcerated. Journal of Labor Research, 37, 412-440.

Highlights

  • The study examines the effectiveness of a prison work program, Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), on employment, earnings, and recidivism.
  • The author used a nonexperimental design to compare employment, earnings, and recidivism outcomes among PIECP participants with those of a group of nonparticipants with similar demographic and criminal-justice backgrounds. They used data from state departments of corrections merged with data on reported earnings.
  • The study found that PIECP participation was associated with a shorter time to employment after release from prison and with higher subsequent earnings. The study found PIECP had no impact on the risk of reconviction or the risk of reincarceration.
  • The quality of causal evidence for recidivism outcomes is moderate because they were based on a well-implemented nonexperimental design. This means we are somewhat confident that any estimated effects would have been attributable to PIECP if the study had found statistically significant effects on recidivism. The quality of causal evidence on employment and earnings outcomes is low because the author did not ensure that the groups being compared were similar before the intervention. This means we are not confident that the estimated effects on employment and earnings are attributable to PIECP; other factors are likely to have contributed.

Intervention Examined

Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP)

Features of the Intervention

Since its authorization in 1979, PIECP has allowed participating prison inmates to work in private-sector jobs. The program was developed to give inmates work experience while still incarcerated that is more directly relevant to the job market after their release than jobs in traditional prison industries. Under PIECP, inmates produce goods or provide services for a private company at a prevailing wage, which must offer at least the minimum wage. The work ranges from routine labor-intensive tasks (such as assembly line work) to skilled jobs (such as sheet metal welding). Depending on the model used in a particular facility, participating inmates might be overseen either directly by a private-sector employer or by the department of corrections, which then sells the products to the private-sector firm. All participants volunteer for the program. Selection criteria vary by state and employer.

Features of the Study

The author used a matching procedure and statistical models to compare employment and recidivism outcomes among PIECP participants with those of a group of nonparticipants with similar demographic and criminal-justice backgrounds. The author identified PIECP participants based on department of corrections’ records and included all inmates released from January 1996 to June 2001 from five unnamed states. The treatment group included any individual who participated in PIECP for one day or more. Each PIECP participant was matched with a nonparticipant of the same race, gender, type of crime committed, approximate age, approximate time served, and approximate number of disciplinary reports. After demonstrating that this matching process created groups that were similar on these and other pre-PIECP characteristics such as earnings and previous occupation, the author used state department of corrections and earnings data to compare these groups’ earnings, rates of employment, and rates of reconviction and reincarceration. Depending on when an inmate was released, the author had data on anywhere from 24 to 90 months after release.

Findings

Employment

  • The study found that PIECP was associated with a shorter period between release and finding employment than the comparison group.

Earnings

  • The study found that among people employed after release, being in the PIECP treatment group was associated with higher earnings per week compared with the comparison group who did not receive PIECP services.

Recidivism

  • The study found PIECP had no impact on the risk of reconviction or reincarceration.

Considerations for Interpreting the Findings

The author did not account adequately for inmates’ employment histories, so existing differences in long-term employment trends could have affected the difference between the treatment and comparison groups’ employment rates. Moreover, the author did not account for earnings histories among the subgroup of participants who were employed after release from incarceration and for whom earnings outcomes were analyzed. These potential existing differences between the groups—and not PIECP—could explain the observed differences in employment and earnings outcomes.

Causal Evidence Rating

The quality of causal evidence on recidivism impacts is moderate because they were based on a well-implemented nonexperimental design. This means we are somewhat confident that any estimated effects would have been attributable to PIECP if the study had found statistically significant effects on recidivism.

The quality of causal evidence on employment and earnings is low because the author did not ensure that the groups being compared were similar before the intervention. This means we are not confident that the estimated effects on employment and earnings are attributable to PIECP; other factors are likely to have contributed.

Additional Sources

Cox, R. (2015). The effect of private sector work opportunities in prison on labor market outcomes of the formerly incarcerated. (Report No. 2015-014). Los Angeles, CA: University of Southern California Center for Economic and Social Research and Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics.

Smith, C. J., Bechtel, J., Patrick, A., Smith, R. R., & Wilson-Gentry, L. (2006). Corrected industries preparing inmates for re-entry: Recidivism & post-release employment. (Report No. 214608). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

Reviewed by CLEAR

December 2019

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