Skip to main content

An Experimental Evaluation of a Comprehensive Employment-Oriented Prisoner Re-entry Program



While the economic model of crime suggests that improving post-prison labor market prospects should reduce recidivism, evaluations of previous employment-oriented re-entry programs have mixed results, possibly due to the multi-faceted challenges facing prisoners at the time of their release. We present an evaluation of an experiment that combines enhanced employment opportunities with wrap around services before and after release.


This paper presents what we believe is the first randomized controlled trial (RCT) of a re-entry program that combines post-release subsidized work with “reach-in” social services provided prior to release. The sample was 236 high-risk offenders in Milwaukee with a history of violence or gang involvement.


We observe increased employment rates and earnings during the period when ex-offenders are eligible for subsidized jobs, and these gains persist throughout the year. The intervention has significant effects (p < 0.01) in reducing the likelihood of rearrest. The likelihood that the treatment group is re-imprisoned during the first year after release is lower than for controls (22 vs. 26 %) but the difference is not statistically significantly different from zero.


The results of our RCT suggest that “reach-in” services to help improve human capital of inmates prior to release, together with wrap around services following release, boosts employment and earnings, although whether there is sufficient impact on recidivism for the intervention to pass a benefit-cost test is more uncertain. Average earnings for both treatment and control groups were very low; legal work simply does not seem that important in the economic lives of released prisoners.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. Early work by the U.S. Department of Justice-sponsored Reentry Partnership Initiative informed a significant push at the national level to identify effective strategies for reentry (Taxman et al. 2001, 2002; Travis 2005). For example, the Offender Reentry and Community Safety Act of 2001, the Second Chance Act of 2004, and the Second Chance Act of 2007 were influenced by this early work ( The Reentry Partnership Initiative started under the direction of then Attorney General Janet Reno in 1999 and was supported by President Bush in his second State of the Union Address (Travis 2005). The initiative encouraged state and local policymakers to develop multi-pronged strategies for successful reentry and continued community safety (Taxman et al. 2002; Travis 2005).

  2. We do not include the evaluation of the Minnesota Comprehensive Offender Reentry Plan Pilot by Grant Duwe (2013). The intervention did not have a strong focus on employment. Further, while prisoners were initially assigned at random to the experimental or control group, over half of each group (63 % of treatment group, 52 % of control group) was disqualified following random assignment and not included in the outcomes evaluation. The author does not report an intention-to-treat set of results that would preserve the experimental design.

  3. In 2006, the US Department of Justice initiated the Comprehensive Anti-Gang Initiative (CAGI) as a follow-on to Project Safe Neighborhoods. In a competition among the US Attorneys’ offices, the Eastern District of Wisconsin, which includes Milwaukee, was selected as one of the first six sites. Each winning District received $2.5 million dollars for the initiative, with $1 million for prevention, $1 million for enforcement and $500K for reentry activities. The US Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with many of the Milwaukee Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) partners, developed the implementation plan for the CAGI funds; this overarching umbrella was called Milwaukee Safe Streets PRI. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections, from the Office of the Secretary, took the lead devising what has become PRI. Funds became available in early 2007. A more detailed history of this experiment is provided in a previous article by the current authors (Cook et al. 2012).

  4. Each week WIDOC gave a member of our research team the list of inmates who had consented to participate. The WIDOC number was entered into a computer generated list randomizer. From the randomized list, beginning with the first number, every third number was selected for treatment, thus providing the initial treatment group.

  5. It is an interesting question whether the reassignment influenced behavior or attitudes of subjects who were first told, in effect, that they had lost the coin toss, and then that they had won after all.

  6. Restorative justice circles involving returning offenders have two parts: a pre-meeting and the circle itself. During the pre-meeting, law enforcement officials, police, and community prosecutors meet with the offenders as a group to tell them what is going to happen. The offenders then meet with victims, who are given a chance to discuss the suffering caused by the crime.

  7. Breaking Barriers is a life skills and behavioral/cognitive change program developed by Gordon Graham based on cognitive psychology and social learning theory. The program is workshop-oriented and presented by trained facilitators using group and individual exercises. It is designed to increase self-efficacy, goal achievement, and personal accountability.

  8. In particular, 6 moved to another state (4 Cs, 2 Ts), and 15 remained in Wisconsin but not in Milwaukee (9 Cs, 6 Ts).

  9. In the PRI sample, a multivariate analysis demonstrates that the likelihood of re-arrest in the 12 months following release declines strongly with time served and with age.

  10. A potential alternative is the administrative records kept by the Wisconsin Unemployment Insurance. Unfortunately we were unable to obtain those records for this project. In principle the data collected by parole officers may be more comprehensive, since not all employment is covered by the Unemployment Insurance system.


  12. It is possible that parole revocation is subject to an “instrumentation” bias, since the parole agents are fully aware of whether their clients are in the treatment group or not, and furthermore, the parole officers in the treatment group see their clients more often and may be better informed about their true activities. Both of these features of the experiment may influence their tendency to recommend revocation, although perhaps in opposite directions. In any case, the “arrest” outcome, which reflects police discretion, is unlikely to be influenced by experimental status.

  13. While we do not have an explicit indication of “expected release date,” we do know that WIDOC’s procedure for identifying inmates as eligible for this experiment took account of when they were likely to be released.

  14. The growing importance of this phenomenon is documented in NPR’s survey of state-mandated fees for indigent legal representation, room and board, and supervision in the community. All but two states increased fees between 2010 and 2014. We do not have data on other liabilities. Some inmates managed to pay off part of their restitution debt before release, but the net restitution at release was not much smaller: including those with zero liability, average net values are $1,484 for controls, and $1,806 for PRIs.

  15. Another released prisoner was the victim of a homicide during the first year after release. In our analysis we treat his case is equivalent to parole revocation, given a reasonable presumption that he was associating with criminals.

  16. The most serious offense mentioned in connection with return was violent or weapons-related in 12 of the 21 revocations with no conviction, and 12/29 cases in which there was a conviction.

  17. Interestingly, this point estimate is in the ball park of what informed opinion believes is feasible. For example, Christy Visher and Jeremy Travis (2011) observe: “According to best estimates of the research community, if we could implement effective programs for all returning prisoners with all the resources needed, we could expect recidivism reductions on the order of 15 to 20 % (p. 1,155)…”

  18. The estimate of $5,000 per offender is an approximation based on the assumption that the WIDOC spent the entire federal grant of $500,000 on additional services for the 106 Ts. In terms of imprisonment, there is a statistically insignificant 4 percentage point difference in return rates to prison between the treatment and control groups. Given our estimate for the costs per participant of about $5,000, the social costs per prison spell would need to be at least $100,000 for the program to have passed a benefit-cost test.

  19. The struggles of the 15 men and 7 women in Michigan to find food and shelter were documented over a two-to three-year period following release (Harding et al. 2014). Especially in the first few months, subjects’ families and romantic partners bore most of the burden of meeting their needs. The handful who attained some level of economic security combined employment with public benefits, social services, and family support (p. 442).


  • Angrist JD, Pischke J-S (2009) Mostly harmless econometrics: an empiricist’s companion. Princeton University Press, NJ

    Google Scholar 

  • Angrist JD, Imbens GW, Rubin DB (1996) Identification of causal effects using instrumental variables. J Am Stat Assoc 91(434):444–455

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Apel R, Sweeten G (2010) The impact of incarceration on employment during the transition to adulthood. Soc Probl 57(3):448–479

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Beck JS (2011) Cognitive therapy: basics and beyond, 2nd edn. The Guilford Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Becker Gary S (1968) Crime and punishment: an economic approach. J Political Econ 76(2):175–209

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Berk R, Pitkin E, Brown L, Bua A, George E, Zhao L (2013) Covariance adjustments for the analysis of randomized field experiments. Eval Rev 37(3/4):170–196

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bloom D, Redcross C, Zweig J, Azurdia G (2007) Transitional jobs for ex-prisoners: early impacts from a random assignment evaluation of the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) prisoner reentry program. MDRC, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Bushway SD, Apel R (2012) A signaling perspective on employment-based reentry programming. Criminol Public Policy 11(1):21–50. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9133.2012.00786.x

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) (2014) Investing in what works: “Pay for Success” in New York state increasing employment and improving public safety detailed project summary.

  • Cook PJ (1975) The correctional carrot: the prospect of reducing recidivism through improved job opportunities. Policy Anal 1(1):11

    Google Scholar 

  • Cook PJ (1980) Research in criminal deterrence: laying the groundwork for the second decade. In: Morris Norval, Tonry Michael (eds) Crime and justice: an annual review of research, vol 2. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 211–268

    Google Scholar 

  • Cook PJ, Dodge K, Farkas G, Fryer RG Jr, Guryan J, Ludwig J, Mayer S, Pollack H, Steinberg L (2014) The (surprising) efficacy of academic and behavioral intervention with disadvantaged youth: results from a randomized experiment in Chicago. NBER Working Paper 19862, Cambridge

  • Cook PJ, O’Brien M, Braga AA, Ludwig J (2012) Lessons from a partially controlled field trial. J Exp Criminol 8(3):271–287

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Durose M, Cooper A, Snyder H (2014) Recidivism of prisoners released in 30 states in 2005: patterns from 2005 to 2010. Special report. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington.

  • Duwe G (2013) An evaluation of the Minnesota Comprehensive Offender Reentry Plan (MCORP) pilot project: final report. Minnesota department of corrections.

  • Farrabee D, Sheldon XZ, Wright B (2014) An experimental evaluation of a nationally recognized employment-focused offender reentry program. J Exp Criminol (on line 2/28)

  • Hammer TJ (2002) The long and arduous journey to truth-in-sentencing in Wisconsin. Fed Sentencing Report 15(1):15–18. doi:10.1525/fsr.2002.15.1.15

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harding DJ, Wyse JJB, Dobson C, Morenoff JD (2014) Making ends meet after prison. J Policy Anal Manag 33(2):440–470

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Heller SB, Pollack HA, Ander R, Ludwig J (2013) “Preventing youth violence and dropout: a randomized field experiment.” NBER Working Paper 19014, Cambridge

  • Lattimore P, Brumbaugh S, Visher C, Lindquist C, Winterfield L, Salas M, Zweig J (2004) National portrait of SVORI: Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative. US Department of Justice, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  • Lattimore P, Steffey DM, Visher C (2010) Prisoner reentry in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Vict Offenders 5(3):253–267. doi:10.1080/15564886.2010.485907

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lipsey M (1990) Design sensitivity: statistical power for experimental research. Sage, Thousand Oaks

    Google Scholar 

  • Mallar CD, Thornton CVD (1978) Transitional aid for released prisoners: evidence from the LIFE experiment. J Hum Resour 13(2):208–236

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Manning WG, Duan N, Rogers WH (1987) Monte Carlo evidence on the choice between sample selection and two-part models. J Econom 35:59–82

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (1980) Summary and findings of the National Supported Work Demonstration. Ballinger Publishing Company, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Petersilia J (2003) When prisoners come home: parole and prisoner reentry. Oxford University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Redcross C, Bloom D, Jacobs E, Manno M, Muller-Ravett S, Seefeldt K, Zweig J (2010) Work after prison: one-year findings from the transitional jobs reentry demonstration. MDRC, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Redcross C, Millenky M, Rudd T, Levshin V (2012) More than a job: Final results from the evaluation of the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) transitional jobs program OPRE Report 2011–18. Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, US Department of Health and Human Services, Washington

  • Rossi PH, Berk RA, Lenihan KJ (1980) Money, work, and crime: experimental evidence. Academic Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Taxman F, Young D, Byrne J, Hoslinger A, Anspach D, Thanner M, Silverman R (2001) The eight reentry partnership initiatives: plans, early results, and conceptual framework. University of Maryland, Bureau of Governmental Research, College Park

    Google Scholar 

  • Taxman F, Young D, Byrne JM, Holsinger A, Anspach D (2002) From prison safety to public safety: innovations in offender reentry. University of Maryland, College Park, College Park

    Google Scholar 

  • Travis Jeremy (2005) But they all come back: facing the challenges of prisoner reentry. Urban Institute, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  • Travis J, Western B, Redburn S (2014) The growth of incarceration in the United States: exploring causes and consequences. National Academy Press, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  • Uggen C (2000) Work as a turning point in the life course of criminals: a duration model of age, employment, and recidivism. Am Sociol Rev 65(4):529–546

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Uggen C, Staff J (2001) Work as a turning point for criminal offenders. Correct Manag Q 5:1–16

    Google Scholar 

  • Visher Christy, Travis Jeremy (2011) Life on the outside: returning home after incarceration. Prison J 91(Supp. to 3):102S–119S

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Waldo GP, Chiricos TG (1977) Work release and recidivism: an empirical evaluation of a social policy. Eval Q 1(1):87–108

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Weisburd D, Gill C (2014) Block randomized trials at places: rethinking the limitations of small N experiments. J Quant Criminol 30:97–112

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Winterfield L, Lindquist C (2005) Characteristics of prisoner reentry programs reentry research in action. US Department of Justice, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  • Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WIDOC) (2012) Recidivism after release from prison. Office of the secretary, research and policy unit, performance measurement series

  • Zweig J, Yahner J, Redcross C (2011) For whom does a transitional jobs program work? Examining the recidivism effects of the center for employment opportunities program on former prisoners at high, medium, and low risk of reoffending. Criminol Public Policy 10(4):945–972

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Philip J. Cook.



See Table 7.

Table 7 Estimation results for employment outcomes, all Qs

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Cook, P.J., Kang, S., Braga, A.A. et al. An Experimental Evaluation of a Comprehensive Employment-Oriented Prisoner Re-entry Program. J Quant Criminol 31, 355–382 (2015).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Recidivism
  • Experiment
  • Employment
  • Prisoners
  • Gang