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Skills and training

Rethinking Career and Technical Education for Individuals Who Are Incarcerated: What Works?

Annabel Stattelman ScanlanApril 16, 2024
Source: International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology Title: The Effects of Vocational Education on Recidivism and Employment among Individuals Released before and during the COVID-19 Pandemic Author(s): Susan McNeeley Original Publication Date: March 14, 2023 Read Full Research Article

Prior studies show that individuals who were formerly incarcerated in the United States are less likely to return to prison if they are employed in high-quality jobs. Yet, those previously involved in the criminal legal system often experience difficulties securing employment as they have lower educational achievement overall and are less likely to have worked consistently before becoming incarcerated.

In response to this research, federal and state prisons are now implementing an array of educational programs to support individuals who are currently incarcerated as they prepare for the end of their sentences. Some of the more successful programs provide career and technical education in the form of industry-recognized certificates, diplomas, or licenses that teach participants job-specific skills. To be eligible, individuals must have already received a high school diploma or GED, and participants are chosen based on various factors including work history and time left in incarceration.

Research into the success of these career and technical education programs yields contradictory results. Some studies show that such training delivers a positive impact on employment and reduces the likelihood of recidivism, while others find negligible differences in outcomes. Furthermore, few studies consider variation between those who choose to participate in career and technical educational programs and those who do not.

In this new study, Dr. Susan McNeeley at the Minnesota Department of Corrections fills an important gap in the literature by controlling for self-selection into vocational education, formerly the more commonly used term to describe career and technical education. Using a technique that matches individuals who completed programs with similar individuals who did not participate, she analyzes data on program completion, recidivism, and post release employment records to reflect the specific impact of career and technical education on long-term outcomes.

McNeeley’s dataset encompasses individuals who were formerly incarcerated and then released from Minnesota Department of Corrections facilities in 2019 and 2020, controlling for whether an individual was released during the COVID-19 pandemic. She finds no differences in any outcome between those who complete programs and the comparison group, highlighting the importance of accounting for different rates of participation in voluntary programs as well as a need for significant changes in programming.

Key findings
  • Individuals who were incarcerated with lower risk-and-need scores on Minnesota’s standard assessment, including the employment needs and education needs sections, are more likely to complete a career and technical education program. Individuals who are white, those who completed other treatment programs, younger individuals, and those who received more visits from family or friends are more likely to complete a career and technical education certificate or diploma.
    • Without a controlled comparison between similar individuals, it appears as though individuals who finished career and technical programs are significantly less likely than nonparticipants to be rearrested or reconvicted. They also are more likely to attain employment after being released from prison, work more total hours after their release, receive higher hourly wages, and make more total income. Importantly, though, without conducting the matching process, it would be unclear if these positive outcomes are due to effective career and technical education programming or other factors.
  • When program completers are compared to similar individuals who did not participate, career and technical education is not related to better employment or recidivism outcomes. In other words, when the differences such as education and employment history of program completers and the general population of incarcerated individuals are considered, the career and technical program appears to be less effective. Perhaps those who volunteer to take part in these career and technical education programs are better equipped to succeed after release from prison or are more motivated to seek out opportunities.
    • In contrast, when an individual was released was significantly related to successful employment and whether they returned to prison. Individuals participating in early release programs were 33 percent less likely to be rearrested and more likely to be employed than those released under standard protocols.
  • Two specific career and technical education programs did have positive impacts on participants. Individuals who completed a Computer Careers program were 35 percent less likely to have their supervised release revoked due to parole violations, and those who received licenses or diplomas in mechanical design and drafting had higher hourly wages than similar nonparticipants.

Policy and practice implications

McNeeley identifies the following implications for policy and practice:

  • Following the risk-need-responsivity model, programs in prisons should target their efforts toward those with a high risk of recidivism. Education and employment needs are moderately related to recidivism, but factors such as antisocial behavior or prior involvement in the criminal legal system are more predictive of recidivism and should be addressed through specialized programming.
  • Education programs should prioritize providing basic programming to individuals with high education needs. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated individuals are about half as likely to have a high school diploma or GED than the general public. While career and technical instruction might not be as effective in reducing recidivism for individuals seeking a postsecondary education, research indicates that obtaining a GED while incarcerated may have a more significant impact.
  • Federal legislators should expand funding for the Continuum of Care Program under the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Given the relationship between stable housing and employment, some prisons work with local planning entities to provide housing services to recently released individuals with funding from the program. More funding would support further coordination and promote better housing and employment outcomes for formerly incarcerated individuals.
  • Employment programs should address other aspects of obtaining employment, including practical barriers. In addition to receiving a GED or postsecondary credentials, individuals who are incarcerated may benefit from instruction concerning resume writing and interview skills. Programs should also seek to help individuals overcome material obstacles by ensuring they have suitable transportation, supplies, and clothing for interviews.
  • Career and technical education programs should build relationships with potential employers to smooth the reentry and hiring processes. Minnesota’s EMPLOY, for example, helps individuals take advantage of their newly acquired credentials, assisting them in job searches, connecting them to hiring organizations, and informing potential employers about their eligibility for tax credits and Minnesota’s Federal Bonding Service.

WorkRise identifies the following implications for policy and practice:

  • Beyond better targeting career-related investments for incarcerated individuals, as suggested by the authors, policymakers could support the career success of formerly incarcerated individuals by strengthening opportunities upon release through legislation and policies. Ban-the-box legislation, which prohibits an employer from asking a prospective applicant about their criminal legal history, is the most well-known of these policies. This isn’t always effective, however, and may negatively impact Black and Latino job seekers. Other research-based alternatives include offering crime and safety insurance and encouraging the adoption of Fair Chance Hiring practices that support businesses as they reexamine their overall hiring strategies.

When incarcerated individuals who complete career and technical education programs are compared to similar nonparticipants, there is no significant difference in employment or recidivism outcomes between the two groups. This may be the result of selective participation of those who were already more likely to succeed after being released from prison. To support incarcerated individuals at the highest risk of recidivism, programs should alter their objectives and strategies to align with their specific needs.

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