90 Percent of Offenders Employed Upon Release-DC Public Safety

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Len Sipes: From our studios in downtown Washington D.C., this is D.C. Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. We’re here today to talk about what I think to be, is an extraordinarily interesting piece of research in terms of what it takes to successfully employ individuals in correctional facilities, what it takes to get them employed. What is the concept, in this case, is the power of small rewards. To talk about this research, we have two principals with us today. We have Stefan LoBuglio. He is the chief of the pre-release and re-entry services division for the Montgomery County Maryland Department of Corrections, and we have Anne Morrison Piehl. Anne is a professor at Rutgers University. She has done a piece of research in conjunction with the Manhattan Institute regarding this research preparing prisoners for employment with the power of small rewards, and to Stefan and to Anne, welcome to D.C. Public Safety.

Stefan LoBuglio: Thank you.

Anne Morrison Piehl: Thank you.

Len Sipes: Okay, ladies and gentlemen, a little commercial before we get rolling with the program. We are very appreciative of all the calls, letters, emails that you’re providing to us in terms of guidance, in terms of criticism, and in terms of suggestions for new shows. Please continue to get back in touch with me via Skype. You can follow me at – I’m sorry, Twitter. You can follow me at twitter/lensipes, or you can email me at Leonard – L-E-O-N-A-R-D – dot-sipes – S-I-P-E-S – @csosa.gov, or you can continue to comment in the blog. And with that, Stefan and Anne, welcome back to D.C. Public Safety.

Anne Morrison Piehl: Thank you.

Len Sipes: Anne, if you would, please, just summarize the research. The preparing prisoners for employment, the power of small rewards. Give me the gist of that research, please.

Anne Morrison Piehl: Well let me tell you why I got into this particular piece. I’ve been leading and contributing to our literature on prisoner re-entry for many years, and I’ve been struck by the difference between academic literature and advocacy literature and the policy prescriptions that come out of that and the experience you get when you visit and see what correctional practitioners are doing about prisoner re-entry on the ground, and I wanted to look at those differences and see what we could learn from that. We all know that inmates have poor employment prospects, for a number of reasons, including their low skills and the tough labor market, etc, but when you go to some well functioning employment or work release programs, you can see that inmates are working and are getting jobs, and I wanted to see what were the mechanisms that correctional professionals use to get those kinds of results. And when I visited the pre-release center in Montgomery County, what I was particularly struck by was their use of very small kind of mechanisms to get inmates to behave in a way that helps prepare them for employment, and this is in stark contrast with the lofty policy proposals you often read about, for example, that require changing licensing requirements, or subsidizing work, or putting people into long term training programs, and I thought this was very interesting.

Len Sipes: And the bottom line seems to be, Anna, that there may be more effective ways of doing it than going after big macro related issues and focusing on, I guess, the concept of small rewards.

Anne Morrison Piehl: Yeah, that was what was provocative about it. Not only is it perhaps more effective, but it might be a lot cheaper, and also the other thing that really sold me on this program is they’re doing it at scale. They have a couple hundred people in the program at any given time, and many of the prisoner re-entry programs that get a lot of attention are very, very small.

Len Sipes: Stefan, that’s a perfect segue over to you. You are the chief of the pre-release and re-entry services division for the Montgomery County Department of Corrections in Montgomery County, Maryland, directly outside the District of Columbia, and you’ve been there for quite some time, and Montgomery County seems to have an extraordinarily good reputation in terms of re-entry services, so give me a brief overview as to what is that you do, and this whole concept of small rewards.

Stefan LoBuglio: Sure, Len. We’re fortunate in Montgomery County that we have a long tradition of our work-release program. We began work-release in the late 1960s and had 15,000 people come through our doors. As a system, as a community, we made a decision back in the 60s, and it continues to the present day, that community safety is enhanced when we properly integrate individuals who are coming from confinement, whether our local jail, a state prison, or a federal prison, and they’re coming back into our community, we’d rather they come through a pre-release program like ours where they can be attached to work, to family, to treatment and other social mechanisms to improve their outcomes and overall outcomes of the community. We’ve been doing it a long time, and I think over that period of time, we have learned what works and what doesn’t, and what we are so pleased about with Anne’s research is her sort of affirmation of one of the taglines of our program, and that tagline reads “freedom through responsibility,” that one of the principal guiding premises of our program is that the individuals themselves who are re-entering have to, they have the work of identifying jobs, of identifying treatment, of identifying community support mechanisms that will assist them in the community. And our role as a program is to provide great structure and great incentives to aid them in proper decision making.

Len Sipes: Okay, now either one of you can answer this question. Now we, in the criminal justice system, when we get together, when we talk about research, and Anne, I think you hinted at this, is that, you know, it doesn’t give you an awful lot of specifics. If you are doing surgery, if you are doing law, if you’re doing, I don’t know, real estate, there are a lot of things that are recognized as best practices, it’s been recognized via research that this is the way to go, this is what you should do, there is a consensus, and a lot of us get the sense that there seems to be little consensus regarding prisoner re-entry, and the different things that either one of you have talked about, they’ve been implemented in the state facilities and county facilities throughout the country, correct? To some degree?

Stefan LoBuglio: To some degree.

Anne Morrison Piehl: To some degree. Yeah, to different degrees, and one of the things that’s difficult about gaining practical advice is that the same term might describe really programmatic structures, right? So it does matter a great deal to think about it specifically, what’s underlying the idea that people are talking about.

Stefan LoBuglio: And Len, I would add that while we have a several hundred year history of corrections in the United States, and we have studies that date back many decades concerning rehabilitation, the current discussion on prisoner re-entry is rather recent. Some data to 1999, when then Attorney General Janet Reno and NIJ director Jeremy Travis began this discussion in trying to determine the reality of, we have all these individuals coming back. So the research is still, the conversation is new, and what I find really encouraging is that when I meet with my peers and practitioners, both at the jail level and at the state prison level, whereas 10 years ago, you’d get passing interest in re-entry, now there is firm commitment by directors and top officials of all agencies about re-entry, so there has been a sea change, and I think there’s a real eagerness right now as testament to the inquiries that you’re getting on your podcast, for what works right now.

Len Sipes: But one of the things that impresses me about the research, Anne, is that you try to examine some of the practices that have been going around the country, and what you’re suggesting is that that’s not necessarily the way to go, and you lay out a road map of specifics as to the proper way of doing this, correct?

Anne Morrison Piehl: Yeah, what I think is really interesting about the time that I spent talking to staff and inmates in reviewing some of the data at the pre-release center in Montgomery County, is that it’s quite different from what you often read about in terms of prisoner re-entry. They do not provide jobs. What they are trying to do is to motivate and help support the job search, because they consider that to be an important skill as well, so inmates find their own work, which requires, then, for them to get some help figuring out how to do online job search and online applications and a lot of techniques that are necessary, and the way they support this effort is by requiring them to search and giving them greater rewards for doing that work and for finding employment. So, for example, one’s curfew shifts by an hour the day one lands a job, and that’s a very salient short term, like that matters to people right away.

Len Sipes: There are immediate rewards for small steps, so they can see very clearly how this is helping them at least, if nothing else, improving their lives while they’re at the pre-release center.

Anne Morrison Piehl: Yeah, and I think that’s a really important insight, because many of the programs that people talk about as being necessary are things like career development programs, so that people get, not a job, but a career, and these very long term high investment kinds of ideas that require a lot of investment by the government, but also by the offender themselves, and most criminal offenders are not, are characterized by having kind of impulse issues. Their people are looking for shorter-term returns. I mean, that’s something that all of us struggle with, but that’s in the inmate population struggles with more, and the program at Montgomery County totally recognizes that.

Len Sipes: Stefan, do you feel that what Anne is saying is correct from the standpoint that, you know, it’s simply a matter of providing direct rewards for participation, and it’s simply a matter of getting the offenders themselves to do it, rather than the system to do it for them. Am I correct or incorrect?

Stefan LoBuglio: Well, I think you’re on the money. I think Anne’s findings are very true. I think it’s important to remember that 95% of prisoner re-entry programs that are discussed and researched take place in an institutional setting: a jail or prison. Ours is a community-based program. If you were to drive by our program, you wouldn’t recognize it as a correctional facility. It’s a building located near a metro station, a light industrial area, but not too far from neighborhoods either. What we do in our program is take advantage of the fact that we’re in the community. We want our clients to engage the community. Our goal is not to recreate programs on site, but rather take advantage of our unique opportunity to have the clients engage community resources in constructive ways.

Len Sipes: All right, so basically, they’re living at the institution, they’re taking, maybe classes at the institution, but basically, during the day time, they are out trying to find work on their own with your assistance.

Stefan LoBuglio: They’re doing most of their activities outside of this program. In fact, if you were to come and visit our correctional facility during the day, you’d almost sense that it was as quiet as a library, because people are out at AA meetings, they’re out on community passes, they’re out working, we have individuals that are in high school or in colleges, they are engaging community institutions that will help them. Our goal is to help them identify those institutions, those jobs that are accessible and meaningful to them that can help them in their lives.

Len Sipes: Anne, I was struck by how many offenders came out of Stefan’s institution with jobs, and how many had jobs with the same employer, I think it was 6 months later?

Anne Morrison Piehl: Yeah, so there are, I guess there’s three bits of hints that I take as being very positive about this program. The first is that every inmate in the facility that I talk to could completely tell me all of the levels of the reward structure and exactly what they needed to do to get more rewards. So that was evidence to me that they are paying attention –

Len Sipes: They’re fully engaged.

Anne Morrison Piehl: They’re fully engaged in the program, and the other thing is that the goal of the program is that people find work within 3 weeks, and most people find work within 3 weeks, and most of them are employed when they leave. About 90% are employed at the time of release.

Len Sipes: Now I do want to dwell upon that before we move on to how many were employed with the same employer 6 months later. 90% left this facility employed.

Anne Morrison Piehl: Yes.

Len Sipes: That is astounding.

Anne Morrison Piehl: And Stefan, that’s a finding that pretty much holds up over time. I mean it fluctuates a little bit from –

Stefan LoBuglio: Yeah, it does, and you know, I think we do have to recognize that we’ve had a very healthy economy, we’re in a vibrant area in Montgomery County, but as Anne said, it has held up over the years in financial downturns as well as upturns. For our clients, we know that they’re not going to go into jobs that necessarily will give a middle class lifestyle. These are entry-level jobs. These are jobs in food services, it could be in grocery stores, could be with landscapers, construction, light industrial work, entry-level jobs, and what we try to remind individuals is, there’s no shame in that. This is what gets them in the door, this gets them habituated to work, this gets money in their pockets and in the bank account. As part of our incentive system and our structure system, we mandate savings, so that they’re saving at the time of release, there are program fees that they have to pay, we are cognizant of the restitution and child support obligations, we make sure that we are developing payment plans, so they are beginning to assume their adult responsibilities, and with the right motivation, they can find jobs, and it is a very simple process, they are making cold calls, they are looking at newspapers, and they are applying to jobs online. I’ll say, recently, one of the things that we had to do as a program to keep up with the way that job search and matching occurs in our society is develop a career resource center with internet based computers, and introducing the internet in a professional facility is always challenging, but we did it carefully, and it’s been remarkably successful.

Len Sipes: If I remember correctly from the research, I think it was 50% are with the same employer 6 months later. Do I have that correct?

Anne Morrison Piehl: It’s about, from 2007, it was 54% 60 days later, and it’s, we don’t have the best follow-up data for what happens outside of this program, so this is suggestive, but I think it’s really positive in that there are a lot of reasons not to stay employed with the same employer that you get at the pre-release center, because there are lots of restrictions they place on what kind of jobs people can take. They can only have a job at a legitimate employer who is reporting those wages he’s participating in, OSHA requirements, and all the rest of that, so there could be other kind of better paying jobs that these people could get if they weren’t so restricted by the center, so this 54% is necessarily a vast underestimate of what would be, how many might be gainfully employed after that.

Len Sipes: You know, I do believe that if 90% of offenders coming out of correctional facilities throughout this country were employed upon release, our rate of recidivism would be dramatically lower than what it is. The fact is that the great majority, somewhere, if memory serves me correctly, about 2/3, are not employed upon release. They haven’t lined up a job. And a lot of these individuals are going through pre-release centers throughout the country, and that 90% figure just doesn’t hold.

Stefan LoBuglio: I think that’s the, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Very few systems have pre-release programs. Most inmates in this country are leaving from prisons and jails –

Len Sipes: That’s correct.

Stefan LoBuglio: – going back into the community, and from my own experience, I can say that it is so difficult to choreograph the job search and matching process where even if you think you have someone who is highly skilled in jail, specific skills, and you find an employer in the community who’s willing to hire him at the day of release, it’s very difficult to get that follow-through. With the pre-release program, they are here in the community, and we can see them take that job and monitor them in that job. Let me also add, a reminder that Anne provides is many of our clients are low skilled individuals, and like other low skilled individuals in our economy, they are going to turn through jobs. So like many work-release programs, I don’t expect them to hold onto these jobs as career jobs. Many of these jobs are not career jobs, but the goal of attaching them to the labor market should reduce recidivism. We know from many studies that the highest risk of recidivating is shortly after release.

Len Sipes: Right, in the first six months.

Stefan LoBuglio: In the first six months. Even the first 30 days. You can look at some of the research, and we’re doing some of it right now, and you see that the risk significantly decreasing day by day, so attaching them to work early on is helpful, helping them have a job when they leave the facility is incredibly helpful, they may jump to other jobs based on very legitimate reasons, some of which Anne has pointed out. One reason might be geography as well. Some of the jobs that they take are convenient to the pre-release program. They may be moving to a distance from the pre-release job, and that job may no longer be convenient.

Len Sipes: Okay, but, you know, let me take a risk here, it seems like you’re apologizing for the fact that people switch jobs. People switch jobs all the time. To me, 90% coming out of the facility with employment, to me, is a remarkable achievement unto itself regardless of how many hold onto the jobs. The whole point, I think, of this, is to make sure that people are gainfully employed to make sure that people do have mental health services, to make sure that people do have substance abuse services, to make sure that people understand what their rights and obligations are in terms of their own community supervision. The fact that you’re able to provide 90% with providers upon release with jobs, or they’re providing those jobs themselves with your guidance, I think is a remarkable achievement. We’re more than halfway through the program, I’m going to re-introduce our guests, and then I’m going to get back to, Stefan and Anne, what are the takeaways for others throughout the country, what are the things they need to understand as to why your program is as successful as it is. Stefan LoBuglio, he is the chief of the pre-release and re-entry services division for the Montgomery County Department of Corrections in Montgomery County, Maryland, Anne Morrison Piehl is a professor with Rutgers University, she wrote a piece of research with the Manhattan Institute, and that piece of research is called “Preparing Prisoners for Employment” – that’s hard to say – “The Power of Small Rewards.” You can look at the research via the Manhattan Institute’s website, which is www.manhattan-institute.org, or you can take a look at the activities at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, www.montgomerycountymd – that’s all basically one word – .gov – G-O-V – /cor. Okay, Anne, Stefan, what are the takeaways for everybody else? So different people listening to this program, if they’re involved in corrections, they could be business people, they could be just students, in the criminal justice system throughout the country, or throughout the world, for that matter, what are the takeaways? What is unique about your research that, what’s different about your research vs. tons of other research on employment?

Anne Morrison Piehl: So I guess I have three takeaways that I want to start with. One, I want to pick up on what you’re remarking on is the 90, nearly 90% employed at release. I think that that matters for several reasons. One, it just shows it can be done, right? And there’s some special features of the shop that Stefan runs. Mostly it’s location, but it does show that it’s possible to get people employed, and this is new for many of those residents. Many of them told me they’ve never had savings before, they had never noticed or observed adults going to work on a regular basis, so this is giving people a new experience, it might be opening their eyes to a new way of life as well as giving them a certain set of skills. The other thing that 90% says to me is that it causes me to question some of the policy recommendations that come from the literature that basically presumes that it’s just going to be impossible to employ people with the characteristics of most –

Len Sipes: But isn’t that a presumption, because the great majority of people leaving correctional facilities throughout this country do not have employment. And while we operate, I think, one of the most, one of the better parole and probation organizations in the country, on any given day, you’re talking about 55% employed, 60% employed, the key here, the issue here is that all of us within the criminal justice system has this sense of exhaustion, and sometimes we go into this with a perspective of, okay, we’re going to do the very best we can to find people employment, but boy, this is really tough, and then somebody comes along and says 90%, and that makes us pay a lot of attention.

Anne Morrison Piehl: Right, and it is heavy lifting, but one of the things that really got me interested in this issue is seeing some economics literature that plotted earnings and employment at the individual level, before incarceration and after incarceration, and some of the highest employment levels that you see in individuals’ histories are right after release from incarceration, and that just points to the importance of that as an opportunity as a time and a place to intervene.

Len Sipes: Okay, so there are obvious benefits for the 90%. Anne, did you have two other takeaways?

Anne Morrison Piehl: Yeah, so the other things I wanted to say about the way they run this program. One we already talked about is that it recognizes the short term thinking and incorporates that into the structure of the program. And the last point is that the rewards are based on behavior, on action of the offenders. It’s not based on attitudinal scores, it’s not based on assessments, and the kind of measures that are frequently used in corrections to move somebody from one placement to another. This is completely behavioral. If you get a job, your curfew changes. If you stay employed, you get more passes to have visits, or opportunity to have visitors. It’s based on what your actions are, not based on any kind of judgment, either by a psychological scale, or by the subjective judgment of any professional in the department.

Len Sipes: And I’m not going to suggest that correctional facilities throughout the country and correctional systems change an emphasis on, or an examination of what employers should be asking for in terms of criminal histories. I was taking a look at research the other day, suggestions that, at what point does a person become a safe risk to the employer, at what point is the person fully going through the process of re-acclimation, that he’s now an employable individual, he’s no longer a risk to public safety, as though there’s a way to measure that. I mean, we struggle with these larger societal issues of how much money to provide, liaisons with employers, these are all very big costly projects that involve a tremendous amount of person power, and in many cases, necessitate a good degree of money. What I’m hearing from the both of you is that there may be a more precise way of looking at this through this concept of small rewards, through this concept of offenders finding jobs on their own, but with guidance by the staff of Stefan’s pre-release center.

Stefan LoBuglio: You know, Len, I would sort of make two points. One is that I think our program, on a day to day basis, proves that correctional systems can manage relatively large correctional populations in a community setting, if the right incentive structures are in place, and the right mechanisms to ensure services and accountability are in place. On a given day, 30% of sentenced inmates in Montgomery County are in our program. We have individuals that have a whole host of different offense types. We don’t exclude by offense type other than escapees. That’s a takeaway for many correctional institutions. Most correctional institutions don’t have a pre-release program, we do. When you have a program like ours, it means, like in 2008, collectively, our population earned $2 million in revenues, in income, paid $300,000 in taxes, child support, hundreds of thousands of dollars in child support and restitution. Many benefits there. The other takeaway is when you have a program like this, and you structure it properly, what it allows us to do is to provide re-entry on an individualized basis. We set up incentives and a structure, but we recognize individuals come into our program with many different backgrounds, many different strengths, many different deficits, and rather than us point to what they need, they are led to understand what is it, what hurdle do they need to overcome that’s been bedeviling them. So in that way, it’s a more efficient allocation of re-entry resources. Oftentimes in our field, we treat offenders as a homogeneous group, and we think of this, that the intervention has to be a “one size fits all” strategy, as Anne was describing. We think we have to have a locational program of a certain type. We almost are in a position of picking winners in terms of the type of jobs that people “should” be pursuing and getting, rather than really finding out what are people interested in, what people have aptitudes about, and through our structure, through recognizing that individuals will act as rational agents, we find that they’re able to make good decisions themselves. One of the most interesting times in our program is when an individual who’s never gotten a job before gets a job, as Anne described. They surprise themselves that they can do it. By phone calls, by interviewing, buy following our guidance. It’s very empowering to them to do it, and it teaches them a lifelong skill.

Len Sipes: And I think that lifelong skill is something that is extraordinarily important. I’ve been told by people that have employment programs within various prison systems, state used industries, if you will, the concept is, in many cases, not providing a skill, but getting that person acclimated to the workaday world, that they have to work together as a team, they cannot mouth off at the boss, that they have to work together, that they may have to skip lunch to make a deadline, that sometimes basics like this are the most important things to teach, and that those individuals going through those programs have a lower rate of recidivism compared to those individuals who do not.

Stefan LoBuglio: Yeah, I think, for perspective employers, the best way to mitigate their fears about hiring an individual who has had court involvement is to see that that person has a work experience that has been successful, and they have a reference, so that if they leave our program, and they’ve had 6 months of working every day and have risen through the ranks, that will do more than anything else, than our vouching about a person’s ability. Their work record will speak for their ability to do a job for a future employer.

Len Sipes: Anne, do you have a way of wrapping all this up from the research perspective?

Anne Morrison Piehl: Well, I think the real question that I’m left with at the end of the day is how can you take these lessons and really implement them at some high level of scale, because we have many, many offenders who need help getting into employment after they leave prison, and we need to really think about how to take lessons from programs like this that can be implemented at a large scale and not in kind of a boutique fashion.

Len Sipes: Amen. Amen, and I think that was the point of the program is to try to get people to understand that there may be different ways of doing it, and different ways of doing it may involve an effort much more minute, much more direct, than the way that they’re looking at the employment of offenders.

Anne Morrison Piehl: Correct.

Len Sipes: And that sense of precision, which I feel is totally lacking, not totally lacking, which some feel is lacking within a lot of the literature, the sense is that through talking to you and talking to Stefan that it’s a matter of structure, but it’s a matter of empowering them to do their own research, it’s a matter of empowering them to create their own opportunities, and these are lifelong skills that they can take with them throughout the rest of their lives, and it may not be, and I’m not suggesting that we do not do these things, but it may not be massive job programs, it may not be massive training programs, it may be something as small as what Stefan is currently doing there within Montgomery County.

Anne Morrison Piehl: And these things seem small to us, I just like to leave with this, but to the people in the program, this is hard work. To be expected to be up every day, to be looking for jobs for hours in a row rather than minutes in a row, to really, to have to stick with the program is really, really hard work. Many of them told me, “I have never worked this hard in my life.” So we call it small, but it’s requiring big changes of them.

Len Sipes: Anne, you’ve got the final word. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been talking to Stefan LoBuglio, he is the chief of the pre-release and re-entry services division of the Montgomery County Department of Corrections in Montgomery County, Maryland. The website for Stefan’s operation, www.montgomerycountymd.gov/cor, Anne Morrison Piehl, who is a professor at Rutgers University, did this research in conjunction with the Manhattan Institute, the research is available at www.manhattan-institute.org. Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been listening to D.C. Public Safety. Once again, we do appreciate all the comments. We do appreciate all of the emails and all of the suggestions for how we can improve the show. Please continue them. And everybody, please have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

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