Recidivism drops, but so has ex-offenders’ employment rates
BOSTON — Recidivism dropped slightly after the state banned employers from inquiring about job applicants’ criminal records but the employment rates of ex-offenders has also dropped since the legal reform was adopted, according to Federal Reserve Bank of Boston researchers.
A new research report, presented Tuesday during a breakfast at the John Adams Courthouse, “has arrows that go in both directions” reflecting positive and negative trends, Judiciary Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Will Brownsberger said.
“The question of how we can help people transition back and start over their lives is just one of the central questions of our time,” Brownsberger said. He said there is “quite a distance still to go” in helping released prisoners re-integrate into society.
Darrin Howell of the health care workers union 1199 SEIU, who was incarcerated for a year at age 21 on a firearm possession charge, said making it easier for people coming out of prison to obtain jobs — through efforts including criminal record access reform and job training programs during their sentences — can help them avoid returning to crime.
“Unfortunately, it was easier to find guns and drugs in the community than it was to find a 9-to-5, and that’s just a harsh reality for folks with a criminal record, that the streets is ready to employ,” he said.
Massachusetts passed laws in 2010 and 2012 to limit employer access to criminal history information, policies aimed at reducing recidivism rates and making it easier for ex-offenders to get jobs.
The 2010 law — which prohibited employers from asking about criminal history on an initial job application — resulted in an 8 percent decline in three-year reconviction rates and an 11 percent decrease in a former prisoner’s probability of recidivism, according to the report.
Lowering recidivism rates has been a target of state government leaders, who last year reached out to the Council of State Governments for help conducting a review of the Massachusetts criminal justice system and identifying policy fixes. The CSG analysis found recidivism drives most new conviction activity, with 79 percent of state prison sentences and 84 percent of sentences to county houses of correction given to people with previous convictions.
Two-thirds of people released from houses of correction in 2011 and more than half of people released from Department of Correction custody were arraigned again within three years of their release, the CSG report found.
The Boston Fed report said the state’s “high recidivism rates may be partly explained by the difficulties ex-offenders, particularly those who served time behind bars for more serious crimes, may face when seeking legal employment.”
The average employment rate of people without criminal records was 5.5 percent higher than for those with criminal records before the 2010 law, according to the report. That gap grew to 8.1 percent after the law took effect.
Researcher Bo Zhao offered two possibilities for why employment rates fell for ex-offenders after the reform. People with criminal records may have gotten more optimistic about their prospects, he said, leading them to search out more selective jobs or wait for positions with higher wages or better conditions. Alternatively, employers might have changed their hiring practices to otherwise screen out applicants with criminal backgrounds, potentially by requiring job applicants to meet higher levels of education or work experience.