After months of lockdowns, capacity restrictions and mandated closures, small businesses crept back into the economy this summer only to face a record-setting labor shortage. Among small businesses, 49 percent reported persistent job vacancies this summer, especially in low-skill industries. This labor crisis presents a unique opportunity to get millions of formerly incarcerated Americans into stable jobs and out of criminal activity, all while helping small businesses recover.
With a record 10.9 million job openings in the U.S., there is no better time for policies that encourage the 870,000 people on parole and 3.5 million people on probation to find jobs. Of the 5 million formerly incarcerated people in the U.S., more than one in four are unemployed. And in their first year out of prison, over 60 percent of people are unemployed.
State legislators should directly incentivize people on probation and parole to find and maintain stable employment. So-called “work for time credits” offer people on probation and parole the opportunity to earn time off of their community supervision sentences based on their ability to hold a job.
Work for time credits are an effective public policy tool to encourage people on probation and parole get back to work. Studies consistently find that the most valuable incentive to people on probation and parole is earning time off of their sentences. When policymakers adopt a work for time credit system, they motivate people to find work and, most importantly, they offer a very attractive reward for people to stay committed to their new jobs. As a result, employers can have greater confidence in new workers — especially business owners who might be hesitant to hire people with criminal histories.
The positive results of getting people on probation and parole into stable jobs ripple beyond the economy. Employment is key to effective rehabilitation and successful community re-entry, and thus to upholding public safety. Studies consistently find that stable employment is the most important factor in determining whether someone will successfully reintegrate into society or fall back into a life of crime. A report by the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services found that unemployed offenders under their supervision were revoked to prison at a rate that was 500 percent higher than the rate for offenders who were employed.
Work for time credits are a particularly effective way to reduce crime because they transition those least likely to reoffend off of supervision sooner. This alleviates burdensome probation and parole caseloads, which often exceed twice the levels recommended by the American Probation and Parole Association. By safely lowering caseloads through an outcomes-based approach like work for time credits, officers can devote more attention to their toughest clients without compromising public safety.
Getting people involved in the criminal justice system back to work will make communities much safer — and it could even soften some of the pains from the national labor shortage. For industries like retail, warehousing, construction and food services — which have a combined 3.5 million job openings — the labor pool of formerly incarcerated workers is big enough to have an impact.
Some states have already taken action: In 2020, the Kentucky legislature created a work for time credit program, rewarding people on probation and parole with one day off of their sentences for every verified 40-hour work week. More states should follow suit in the coming legislative session.
Policymakers should use work for time credits to encourage the millions of people on probation and parole to fill the millions of persistently vacant jobs. Doing so will pay dividends in improved public safety for years to come. After over a year of politicians incentivizing people to stay unemployed, it’s time for our government to encourage the right kind of behavior: honest, hard work.
Devon Kurtz is criminal justice policy manager for Cicero Institute, a non-partisan, national think tank based in Austin.