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An outcome evaluation of a prison work release program: Estimating its effects on recidivism, employment, and cost avoidance (Duwe 2015)

Absence of conflict of interest.

Citation

Duwe, G. (2015). An outcome evaluation of a prison work release program: Estimating its effects on recidivism, employment, and cost avoidance. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 26(6), 531-554.

Highlights

  • The study examined the impact of the Minnesota Department of Correction’s work release program on post-release employment, earnings, and recidivism outcomes for adult offenders.
  • The author used a nonexperimental design (propensity score matching) to create a comparison group of nonparticipants who were similar to program participants. The author estimated the program’s effects by comparing these groups’ post-release employment, earnings, and recidivism outcomes using data from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Minnesota Department of Corrections, and the Minnesota Department of Employee and Economic Development.
  • The author found that, on average, program participation decreased the risk of reconviction by 14 percent and of re-incarceration by 17 percent, but increased the risk of participants having their supervised release revoked for a technical violation by 78 percent.
  • The quality of causal evidence presented in this report is moderate for outcomes related to recidivism and low for post-release employment and earnings outcomes. This means we are somewhat confident that the estimated effects on recidivism are attributable to the work release program, although other factors might also have contributed, and we are not confident that the estimated effects on employment and earnings are attributable to the program; other factors are likely to have contributed.

Intervention Examined

Minnesota Department of Correction’s work release program

Features of the Intervention

The Minnesota Department of Correction’s work release program was established in 1967. The program provides employment services in both correctional facilities and the community to low-risk offenders who have served at least half of their sentence and are within eight months of their supervised release date. Individuals first learn about the program during an orientation session when they enter the Minnesota prison system. Once inmates are within a year of their release date, they can apply to participate in the work release program. To be eligible, participants cannot have a prior sex offense or an offense that would require them to register as a predatory offender, and they cannot have a high recidivism risk based on their criminal history, behavior within prison, or score on the Revised Level of Service Inventory. Participants begin program services within the final 60 to 90 days of their release by engaging in job searches based on their vocational skills, contacting “felon-friendly” employers, and working with staff to address employment barriers through skills assessments, resume preparation, learning job-searching techniques, and building interviewing skills. Post-release, participants receive a portfolio with copies of their resume, certifications, and job leads. Participants continue receiving employment assistance for up to one year following their release and maintain regular contact with program staff to receive assistance with job leads and resume maintenance.

Features of the Study

The author used a statistical approach (propensity score matching) to compare post-release employment, earnings, and recidivism outcomes between the treatment and comparison groups. A total of 1,785 offenders who participated in the work release program between 2007 and 2010 made up the treatment group while the most closely matched 1,785 nonparticipants (of a total pool of 6,841 nonparticipants) made up the comparison group. Program participants and comparison group members were drawn from county jails and residential facilities operated by community corrections. The author used statistical models to compare program participants’ outcomes to those of comparison group members using data on employment and earnings from the Minnesota Department of Employee and Economic Development, data on reconvictions from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and data on re-incarcerations and revocations from the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Findings

  • Employment. Work release program participation was associated with a greater likelihood of attaining employment in the two years after release.
  • Earnings. Work release program participation was associated with higher earnings over the first two years after release.
  • Recidivism. Participating in the work release program decreased the risk of reconviction by 14 percent and the risk of re-incarceration by 17 percent. These differences were statistically significant. Participating in the program increased the risk of participants having their supervised release revoked by 78 percent.

Considerations for Interpreting the Findings

Although the author used a well-implemented nonexperimental design to examine the relationship between participation in the work release program and recidivism outcomes, the author did not account for potential differences between the treatment and comparison groups’ employment and earnings histories before the program. Additionally, because the treatment group comprised individuals who applied to the work release program and the comparison group consisted of individuals who were eligible but did not apply for the program, unobservable factors, such as individual motivation, might have contributed to the estimated effects. This study found a significant relationship between the intervention and recidivism due to technical violations of probation or parole. As the author noted, work release participants are subject to greater surveillance than offenders placed on regular supervision, which may explain the treatment groups’ higher rates of revocation. However, because the definition of a technical violation can vary by jurisdiction, it is unclear whether these findings are generalizable to other contexts.

Causal Evidence Rating

The quality of causal evidence presented in this report is moderate for the analysis on recidivism outcomes and low for the analysis on post-release employment and earnings. The analysis of recidivism outcomes was based on a well-implemented nonexperimental design that accounted for recidivist histories between the treatment and comparison groups. Therefore, we are somewhat confident that the estimated effects on recidivism are attributable to the work release program, although other factors might also have contributed. For employment and earnings outcomes, the analyses do not account for potential differences in employment and earnings histories between the treatment and comparison groups before program participation. This means we are not confident that the estimated effects on employment and earnings are attributable to the work release program; other factors are likely to have contributed.

Reviewed by CLEAR

October 2018

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