Absence of conflict of interest.
Bales, W. D., Clark, C., Scaggs, S., Ensley, D., Coltharp, P., Singer, A., & Blomberg, T. G. (2015). An assessment of the effectiveness of prison work release programs on post-release recidivism and employment. Tallahassee, FL: Florida Department of Corrections and Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University College of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
- The study’s objective was to examine the impact of work release programs in the state of Florida on recidivism and employment outcomes for people released from prison.
- The authors used a nonexperimental design to create a comparison group of nonparticipants who were eligible for work release program services but did not participate. The authors estimated the work release program’s effects by comparing treatment and comparison groups’ post-release recidivism and employment outcomes using administrative data from the state of Florida for three years after release.
- The authors found that participating in a work release program decreased the risk of arrest for a new felony or misdemeanor crime by about 10 percent one year following release from prison, by about 8 percent two years following release, and by about 9 percent three years following release. The study also found that people who completed the work-release program were less likely to have a reconviction at three years following release from prison, but reconvictions were the same across groups at one and two years following release. People who completed the work release program were more likely to return to prison for any reason after one year, but returns were the same across groups after two or three years.
- The quality of causal evidence presented in this report is moderate for outcomes related to recidivism and low for outcomes related to employment. 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; we are not confident that the estimated effects on employment are attributable to the program, as other factors are likely to have contributed
Florida's Back to Work Program
Features of the Intervention
Work release programs house people in community facilities and allow them access to paid employment before their release from prison, the opportunity to improve job skills, and the ability to reestablish connections in their community. Although people can pursue employment during the day, they must return to their facility for the night, and they are still in the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections. After completion of the program, the people are released from custody back into the community. To be eligible for the programs, prisoners must have been assessed to be at the lowest security risk as determined by the Florida Department of Corrections. The work release programs were provided in 32 privately and publicly operated centers throughout Florida.
Features of the Study
The authors used a nonexperimental design to compare post-release employment and recidivism outcomes between the treatment and comparison groups. From 2004 to 2011, a total of 27,463 inmates participated in work release programs, and a total of 15,911 inmates were eligible for work release but did not participate. The authors report that in most cases, this was because there were no available beds in work release centers for these people. Some inmates participated more than one time during this period. The sample was 87 percent male, 49 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic, and about 35 years old on average at release. In all, 15 percent were employed before entering prison and served 26 months in prison on average. The authors used statistical models to compare outcomes for work release completers with those for comparison group members up to three years after release, accounting for demographic characteristics, employment during the quarter before entering prison, criminal history, and year of release from prison. The analysis used administrative data from the Florida Department of Corrections and Florida Department of Law Enforcement on recidivism and from the Florida Department of Revenue on employment.
- Participation in a work release program decreased the risk of arrest for a new felony or misdemeanor crime by about 10 percent one year following release from prison, by about 8 percent two years following release, and by about 9 percent three years following release. These differences were statistically significant. The study also found that people who completed the work-release program were about 6 percent less likely to have a reconviction at three years following release from prison, though reconvictions were the same across groups at one or two years following release. People who completed the work release program were more likely to return to prison for any reason after one year, but returns were the same across groups after two or three years.
- Participation in a work release program was associated with a greater likelihood of obtaining employment in the first three months after release. This association was statistically significant.
Considerations for Interpreting the Findings
Although the authors used a well-implemented nonexperimental design to examine the relationship between participation in work release and recidivism outcomes, they did not account for potential differences between the treatment and comparison groups’ employment for more than one year before the program. Any existing differences between the groups in employment before program participation—and not their participation in work release—could explain the observed differences in employment post-release.
The study authors estimated multiple related impacts on outcomes related to recidivism. Performing multiple statistical tests on related outcomes makes it more likely that some impacts will be found statistically significant purely by chance and not because they reflect program effectiveness. The authors did not perform statistical adjustments to account for the multiple tests, so the number of statistically significant findings in these domains is likely to be overstated.
In addition, the authors used a comparison group of those eligible to receive work release. Although the authors suggest that this group did not participate in work release in most cases because of oversubscription to the program, it is unclear how prisoners were referred to work release or whether this was voluntary. Therefore, it is possible that there were systematic differences in the characteristics of the groups who did and did not participate in the work release program. For example, if ex-offenders applied to the program, those who applied earlier might have been more motivated to receive services than those who applied later. Similarly, if corrections officers or other prison staff referred prisoners to the program, they might have referred those who demonstrated more motivation or ability. The authors accounted for differences between the groups, however, in demographic characteristics and criminal history, which might explain differences in recidivism post-release.
Causal Evidence Rating
The quality of causal evidence presented in this report is moderate for the analysis of recidivism and low for the analysis of employment. The analysis of recidivism was based on a well-implemented nonexperimental design that accounted for differences in criminal history 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, the analysis did not account for potential differences in employment between the treatment and comparison groups more than one year before participation in the program. This means we are not confident that the estimated effects on employment are attributable to the work release programs; other factors are likely to have contributed.