Study Offers Insight Into the Potential of Jail-Based American Job Centers

Study Offers Insight Into the Potential of Jail-Based American Job Centers

Mar 07, 2019

Since June 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has awarded $10 million in grants to 20 local agencies to test various methods of creating jail-based American Job Centers (AJCs). These jail-based AJCs aim to provide incarcerated people with crucial employment services to help them successfully reenter their communities upon release. When the grants were announced in 2015, DOL noted that many of the more than nine million people released from county and local jails each year have few job skills and face significant barriers to stable employment. These grants, called Linking to Employment Activities Pre-Release (LEAP), were designed to support efforts to better prepare incarcerated people to be ready for work upon release, to increase their employment opportunities, and to reduce recidivism rates.

Working with DOL, Mathematica conducted a 36-month evaluation through site visits, phone interviews, focus groups, and analysis of the grantees’ quarterly performance reports. Mathematica’s descriptive implementation study examined how the grant-funded efforts were operated at each of the 20 sites, whom the jail-based AJCs were reaching, what challenges existed in locating AJCs within jails, and what strategies were used to successfully overcome these challenges. 

Mathematica released the final report and a compendium that synthesized results from a series of 10 targeted issue briefs. Key findings include the following:

  • LEAP grants demonstrated the feasibility of offering AJC services in a jail setting. Despite being a new approach for DOL and the majority of the funded sites, all sites successfully operated jail-based AJCs. Of the 20 sites, 11 planned to maintain their jail-based AJC after the end of the grant, and 6 more were exploring options for sustainability.
  • Close collaboration was crucial for successful implementation. Early, frequent, and ongoing communication between the workforce development agencies and jail staff helped bridge cultural differences and create buy-in. Strong partnerships were also essential to gain approval and support for developing the jail-based AJCs, recruiting participants, delivering prerelease services, and planning for release.
  • The jail environment—including the layout, security level, and the degree to which staff were focused on reentry—constrained jailed-based AJCs’ service offerings and schedules. Jail rules limited the ability to fully recreate the feel of and range of services available at a community-based AJC. Jail procedures also affected the service schedule and participants’ ability to move to and from the AJC.
  • Many grantees required partnerships with specialized service providers to help participants overcome challenges to reentry. Although sites noted the benefits of local workforce development boards leading the LEAP grants and providing employment services through jail-based AJCs, partnerships with other service providers helped grantees begin to address the full range of participants’ needs that were crucial for successful reentry.
  • Participants appreciated being treated like traditional customers—job seekers rather than inmates—while in the jail-based AJC. Staff and participants reported that the jail-based AJCs helped participants increase their confidence, understand and expand their skills, think beyond the jail walls, and feel like members of society deserving of employment.
  • Sites struggled to engage participants after release but identified areas in which they could help overcome barriers to engagement and employment. Participants had many competing demands after release, including parole and probation requirements, and staff often had poor contact information for them. In response, staff in some sites increased participants’ contact with community-based AJC staff before release, and others provided incentives to visit the community-based AJC. Some sites also provided transportation assistance, coordinated with parole and probation agencies to avoid conflicts, or employed staff dedicated to post-release outreach.
  • Both participants and staff identified barriers to employment that affected participants after they left jail. The biggest barriers to employment as identified by participants were probation requirements, distance to available jobs, lack of transportation, and lack of stable or affordable housing. Staff also identified mental health issues and substance abuse as potential barriers. In addition, both participants and staff indicated that many employers were not always receptive or able to hire people with a criminal history.

The following are based on an analysis of data reported by grantees as of March 31, 2018:

  • LEAP sites exceeded their enrollment targets, serving 3,805 people as of March 2018. The majority (83 percent) were men, were ages 25 to 44, and had low income. About one-quarter (27 percent) did not have a high school diploma or GED, and about six percent had limited English proficiency.
  • About 85 percent of participants released from jail were reported by grantees as work ready or demonstrated an increase in work readiness, exceeding the DOL target of 80 percent.
  • In all, 39 percent of participants found unsubsidized employment or participated in post-secondary education, occupational skills training, or Registered Apprenticeship in their first quarter after release, falling below DOL’s target of 60 percent. Because of difficulties tracking participants—especially those who did not engage in AJC services after release from jail—this figure likely underreports employment. Placement rates varied considerably across sites, from a high of 84 percent to a low of 2 percent.
  • Participants who found jobs mostly worked in the service, manufacturing, construction, and warehousing industries, in which employers are typically more willing to hire people with a history of incarceration.
  • About 58 percent of participants who were placed in jobs remained employed three quarters later, a retention rate slightly lower than DOL’s target of 70 percent.
  • Among participants who were not immediately placed in additional education, employment, or career services programs, 69 percent were enrolled in these services during the first 30 days after their release.
  • In the first year following their release, 20 percent of participants were arrested, below the DOL target of 22 percent and well below the 44 percent recidivism rate recently reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Although this is an encouraging start, the quality of data on recidivism collected and reported by grantees differed greatly. In addition, because of the timing of the grants and study, many participants had yet to reach a full year following release and were therefore not included in the calculation.

As context for the reported outcomes, the sites had only been serving participants for 16 to 24 months when the final performance data were reported, and some participants were still incarcerated. Many who had been released were still working toward key education and employment milestones that were only reported for the first quarter after release and had not yet received a full year of post-release services in the community.

This evaluation suggests that introducing new services, partnerships, and ways of thinking about reentry could hold promise for lasting effects on the workforce and corrections systems. The experiences of the LEAP grantees highlight important lessons learned and some areas for continued refinement or potential replication in similar or different contexts. Although this implementation evaluation cannot make causal claims, the evidence suggests that it is possible to use jail-based AJCs to link participants to post-release services and that this might be a promising approach to support people in successfully reentering the community.