Job-Related Programs for People on Supervision: Reframing the Problem

AuthorShawn Bushway
Published date01 May 2022
Date01 May 2022
Subject MatterImproving Human Capital and Labor Market Opportunities
98 ANNALS, AAPSS, 701, May 2022
DOI: 10.1177/00027162221115501
Programs for
People on
Reframing the
1115501ANN The Annals of the American AcademyJob-Related Programs for People On Supervision
Job training programs for people under supervision
have been based on an economic framework that identi-
fies individuals involved in crime as a disadvantaged
group with poor human capital. The best available
research evidence has not found that these programs
consistently improve employment outcomes. This arti-
cle reviews the evidence for the effectiveness of stand-
ard job training programs and then examines new
developments in the field that use alternative frame-
works for understanding the roles of such programs.
The first alternative is signaling: how people under com-
munity supervision use the completion of job training to
signal to employers and others that the behavior that led
to their conviction is either anomalous or no longer
representative of them. The second alternative is a
model of desistance known as identity change: the ways
in which job training can help individuals solidify a new,
more prosocial identity. I make sense of extant work and
new alternatives and provide a set of recommendations
for change in the community supervision system.
Keywords: desistance; job training; identity; parole;
probation; community supervision;
employment; signaling
In 2018, 4.4 million people were under com-
munity supervision in the United States: 3.5
million people on probation and almost 900,000
on parole (Maruschak and Minton 2020). Many
of the programs created for this significant
population focus, at least in part, on employ-
ment or employment training. This standard
approach is based on an economic framework
that suggests that people choose to commit
crime because the benefits of crime outweigh
the benefits of work. The solution, then, is
Shawn Bushway is a senior policy researcher at the
RAND Corporation and a professor of public adminis-
tration and policy at the University at Albany. He is an
expert on desistance and the relationship between
crime, criminal justice involvement, and employment.
either to improve the human capital of these workers so the benefits of their work
improves (supply-side programs) or to incentivize employers with benefits or sub-
sidies, encouraging them to hire people on community supervision (demand-side
programs) (Bushway and Reuter 2001). While it is an empirical fact that many
people currently on community supervision have low levels of education and poor
job skills, decades of research find that employment programs designed to
improve human capital or increase employer demand have failed to achieve
noticeable results (Visher et al. 2005; Bushway and Apel 2012). This suggests that
the framework justifying these programs needs to be re-examined and modified.
One possible modification would be to focus on other problems faced by this
population, including the very fact of their community supervision. This view-
point frames the problem not as the lack of human capital or detachment from
the labor market among people under supervision but, rather, as the stigma and
human capital displacement caused by conviction and supervision itself. As such,
lowering the rates of conviction and community supervision would jointly fix the
problems of both unemployment and crime. This is an attractive solution, at least
in part because the high rate of criminal justice involvement in this country is so
obviously problematic and unsustainable. And there is some evidence to support
this approach. Recent evidence suggests that without any significant increases in
crime, the government can reduce supervision rates by less frequently revoking
parole and probation for technical violations, by applying probation sentences
instead of prison, and/or by using pretrial supervision selectively (Austin and
Jacobson 2013; Lofstrom, Bird, and Martin 2016).
However, the best available evidence simply does not support the claim that
even the harshest form of criminal justice involvement—incarceration—causes
the problems encountered in the labor market by people with records (National
Research Council 2014). While criminal justice involvement certainly carries
stigma, the employment problems for formerly incarcerated people existed before
their spells of detention (Kirk and Wakefield 2018). Bureau of Justice Statistics
data show that over 80 percent of all incarcerated people have at least one prior
felony conviction before their current prison term (Langan and Levin 2002).
Similarly, most people who serve time in prison have poor outcomes across dimen-
sions before entering the criminal justice system (Petersilia 2003).1 As a result, the
notion of reentry for people on parole is misleading in its focus on the need to
reintegrate people into the community. Rather than prison causing people to lose
their integration, many were not integrated even before their incarceration.
This lack of integration is also an issue for many people on other forms of com-
munity supervision, like probation. In most populations, criminal justice involve-
ment peaks in the late teens and early twenties, before employment becomes a
primary way for people to spend time outside the home. In other words, criminal
NOTE: I would like to acknowledge the contributions of past coauthors to the ideas discussed
in this article, including Peter Reuter, Bobby Brame, Robert Apel, Garima Siwach, Megan
Denver, Nidhi Kalra, Brent Orrell, and Raymond Paternoster. I would also like acknowledge
the helpful suggestions from the two editors, David Harding and Bruce Western. All errors
remain my own.

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