The poor national economy has thwarted the notion that most of the 700,000 people released from prison each year can find employment, but criminologists believe it's still important to track who finds work and who doesn't.
In a briefing this week for congressional staff members and others in Washington, D.C., Robert Apel of New Jersey's Rutgers University suggested that success in getting jobs could serve as a "signal to identify people who will desist from crime."
Apel and fellow criminologist Shawn Bushway of the University at Albany wrote the lead article in the new issue of the American Society of Criminology's Journal Criminology & Public Policy.
Bushway, who also spoke at the briefing in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, said that employment of former inmates, even if it is not always successful, can serve an important function as a "risk predictor."
The same offender who is motivated enough to find a job may also be one who will stop committing crimes, Bushway explained.
In their paper, Apel and Bushway write that their review of studies done on the subject suggests that employers should not automatically reject all offenders for jobs.
Some employers, they said, "may already be using completion of employment training programs (either pre-release or post-release) to identify 'good employees' from the pool of low-skill labor."
The criminologists questioned state laws that ban offenders from entire categories of work.
"Such a decision framework throws away any and all information that can be learned from the actions of the individual since the time of the last offense," they say.
Government may have information about which offenders have taken part in work training programs in prison or under probation or parole supervision.
"It needs to be organized in such a way that employers can use it," Apel and Bushway contend.
Another speaker at the Capitol Hill program was criminologist Edward Latessa of the University of Cincinnati, who wrote in the policy journal that research "clearly demonstrates that well-implemented correctional programs that target the right offenders, target criminogenic needs, and teach offenders new skills and behaviors can have an appreciable effect on recidivism."
Asked to comment on the criminologists' findings, Dora Schriro, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, told the congressional briefing that job-training programs in prisons and jails would be more successful if they "operate like the real world" as much as possible.
This means giving inmates fewer orders and more of a role in deciding what kinds of work they can do while in custody and how they can best spend the leisure time they have, on things like family concerns and self-improvement.
One reason that work behind prison and jail walls has not been very successful in reducing crime, she said, is that inmates tend to be ordered how to spend their days, and cannot cope with making decisions on their own once they are released.
Schriro noted that many offenders are naturally entrepreneurial.
"We should shift responsibility from us to the inmates" in encouraging them to formulate responsible business plans, and "capture their interest in earning money," she said.
The briefing was sponsored by the American Society of Criminology and the Consortium of Social Science Associations.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington-based contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.