The Urban Institute Reentry Roundtable Discussion Paper:
Crime, Work, and Reentry
CRIME AS WORK
Analysts commonly think of crime as an alternative to work, sometimes making the
comparison casually and sometimes with a great deal of formality. The most obvious points of
connection are that crime (sometimes) yields financial returns and that it takes effort and time to
do. If crime is "work," the two types of activities are substitutes, and improving legal sector
employment opportunities through programs emphasizing job skills and job search will prevent
crime. The pressure on prevention efforts, then, is to "make work pay" for participants, altering
incentives somehow to make work relatively more attractive. Programs following this approach
often subsidize work or aim to develop skills that will result in higher wages.
There clearly are limits to the usefulness of the analogy, as there are many types of illegal
behavior that appear to have little resemblance to "work." Some of these are more closely related
to our notions of leisure than to work, such as driving under the influence or vandalism, and
some are hard to categorize as "like" other activities, such as sex offenses or drug use. Yet even
if crime is something very different from work, it may be possible that employment conditions
influence criminal activity. The availability of a good job could reduce illegal behavior by
affecting the benefits or costs of crime, by occupying a potential offender for many hours per
day, by providing essential social structure, or through another mechanism. Under these
circumstances, increases in employment may have beneficial impacts on crimes that do not yield
a financial payoff to the perpetrator.
In this essay, I consider the extent to which work appears to be a relevant factor in whether
individuals commit criminal acts and, as corollary, the extent to which work can be expected to
contribute to crime prevention. I consider a range of reasons that programs emphasizing work
may be useful interventions for criminally involved populations, particularly when delivered in
prison to prepare inmates for reentry into civil society. In thinking about the mechanisms by
which work can affect crime, I bear in mind the prospects for delivering services to various
segments of the offender population in order to trigger these mechanisms.
The paper includes only a cursory review of relevant research literature. For detailed discussions of the various
aspects of the relationship between work and crime, I recommend reviews by Bushway and Reuter (2002), Fagan
and Freeman (1999), Freeman (1999a), and Piehl (1998).