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Report: Recidivism persistent as mistrust leaves ex-inmates jobless

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(The Center Square) — Researchers say hiring ex-inmates, long touted as an effective safeguard against recidivism, comes with challenges that prove difficult to overcome.

That’s because, they say, employers assess risk differently, and many don’t trust the recommendations from the criminal justice system itself.

“A lot of employers are willing to give people a second chance,” said Mateus Rennó Santos, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of South Florida. “They are often willing to give that chance because they think that’s important, that’s fair … the problem, however, is that employers, every time they’re trying to make a hiring decision, essentially what they’re trying to do is to manage risk.”

Santos, along with Chae Jaynes and Danielle Thomas of South Florida, published research based on a survey of business managers and how an applicant’s criminal record affected their hiring decisions.

They found that managers looked for signals to show an applicant with a record isn’t a threat to other workers or customers, and that they have some sort of verification for their skills.

“We found that those (re-entry) interventions that the criminal justice system, alone, cannot do much,” Santos said. “The employers, they don’t trust the word of the criminal justice system alone. Why? Because the criminal justice system has a conflict of interest.”

Heavy caseloads for parole officers and the cost of services, he said, encourages officials to offer recommendation letters to employers. But employers don’t trust that vetting process.

“What people with a criminal record need … is they need to get a credential, some sort of credential from an institution that has credibility — outside of the criminal justice system,” Santos said.

An associate’s or bachelor’s degree, for instance, shows that a person has the discipline to finish a program and the motivation to work. A letter from a former employer, Santos said, “can have a very positive impact.”

Pennsylvania’s recidivism rate has been high for years. A 2022 report from the Department of Corrections noted that almost 65% of inmates who were released were re-arrested or re-incarcerated within three years. That’s worse than the 62% recidivism rate the Department recorded from a 2013 report.

Prison officials in Pennsylvania have touted some recidivism programs that have shown some promising results, as well as job training programs, as The Center Square previously reported.

Santos and his co-authors, however, warned that officials can make two types of mistakes: starting programs that don’t do enough, and job training programs that prepare inmates for jobs they can’t legally do.

“Oftentimes, individuals with a criminal record are trained to do jobs they cannot even have,” Santos said, such as barbers or jobs where the worker enters a person’s home.

Giving tax incentives for employers to hire former inmates, too, tend to have poor results. The programs are complicated, Santos noted, with the small financial amounts and extra paperwork not worth the nuisance for small businesses.

Instead, he suggested job internships before someone is released, or education programs that are funded for a whole degree, rather than a few classes.

“We can encourage employers to hire individuals with a criminal record — if we reduce their risk,” Santos said.

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