The Urban Institute Reentry Roundtable Discussion Paper:
Crime, Work, and Reentry
many people would maximize lifetime income by committing crime when young, given the risks
of injury, punishment, and their consequences. In an assessment of a range of data sources on
this question, Freeman (1999a) concluded that research generally finds "that crime pays at least
on an hourly basis for those who commit crime" (p.3553).
Although there is some indication from non-experimental evidence that work is related to
crime, there is little convincing evidence that programs to provide jobs and/or wage subsidies to
non-criminal justice (but "high-risk") populations are effective tools in crime prevention. There
has been little activity in running and rigorously evaluating work-based crime prevention
programs, and many work programs do not measure criminal justice outcomes, so their
effectiveness cannot be judged. As noted in Bushway and Reuter (2002), recent evidence on Job
Corps is promising, but evidence from less extensive (and more expensive) interventions is not.
Another paper for this symposium (Bushway 2003) comments in particular on prison work
programs, so I do not review that topic here. In general, the experimental evidence from prison
programs does not provide overwhelming support for work-based programming as a broad scale
solution for the multiple difficulties faced by inmates leaving prison. (But Bushway does
conclude that there are some promising nuggets to be found in the evaluation literature.)
All together, there is reason to believe that work programs should reduce crime and increase
legal earnings, but the relationship between work and crime does not resemble a choice between
one type of career and another. The lack of strong program evaluation results is disappointing, as
clear results would offer definitive advice for where to target resources. Yet, in spite of this
research environment, many continue to hold out hope that work can be a meaningful way to
help inmates with reentry, both to reduce recidivism and to make inmates more productive
citizens. The rest of the paper considers this hopefulness and offers some guidance for refining
what we should expect work to offer the larger goal of successful reentry.
Note that the research reviewed here was selected to cover crimes with reasonable expectation of financial return.