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Helping People With Criminal Convictions Get Jobs: Research Clinic With the Center for Employment Opportunities

March 23, 2018

The Background

The number of people in America's prisons and jails has risen to 2.2 million, a 500 percent increase over the last 40 years, according to The Sentencing Project. For those who leave and try to re-enter society, the incarceration experience haunts them beyond the end of a sentence served. Some lose their right vote. Their families suffer. And if they want to get jobs, they often face employers who participate in America's stigmatization of those with criminal convictions: More than 60 percent of people who went to prison or jail are unemployed a year after getting out. Failing to help them find work has significant consequences given the importance of jobs to a community's and individual's health.

The Partner

In the past 10 years, the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) has placed more than 25,000 formerly incarcerated people into full-time jobs around the country. To boost its efficacy, CEO reached out to Stanford SPARQ: Social Psychological Answers to Real-world Questions with these inquiries:

  • How can CEO improve its job-matching process and retention rates?
  • How can CEO optimize its feedback system, integrating in-person coaching sessions and mobile app check-ins to keep participants on track?

The CEO employees who joined the March 14 convening were: Dane Worthington, Director of Economic Opportunity; Lonnie Tucker, Director of CEO's Oakland office; Nate Mandel, Program Innovation Analyst; and Bill Heiser, Senior Director, California and National Business Development.

The Takeaways

Seize the Story: CEO could help its clients overcome the stigma and trauma associated with their criminal pasts by taking them through a writing exercise based on research from the psychologist James Pennebaker. The activity involves repeatedly writing about past experiences in an effort to understand and interpret trauma in ways that give a sense of control over the narrative of one's life. With their stories firmly in hand, CEO's clients could better navigate formal interviews and casual conversations about who they were, are, and want to be. Researchers can provide guidance on implementing the activity and evaluating its impact on job placement and performance and recidivism rates.

No Lunches Alone: People with criminal convictions often experience social isolation when going from a culture of incarceration to a regular work environment. In some ways, first-generation college students have a similar jarring experience when they arrive on college campuses and find themselves surrounded by people with unfamiliar values and backgrounds. Programs that connect students with one another help create a stable community of peers who understand and support each other. CEO's clients could benefit from a similar network to facilitate simple but effective activities that ease the difficulties faced by people with criminal convictions, such as ensuring none of them need to eat lunch alone, a distressing experience of isolation that one CEO client described. Also consider organizing employers who work with CEO so they too can benefit from sharing experiences common to hiring people who have been incarcerated. Researchers can collaborate with CEO to develop initiatives that foster connections and assess their effect on retention rates.

Expert Ambassadors: Invest in alumni programming to support CEO graduates and active participants. Make it an honor for select alumni to return to CEO as experts who can advise new program participants. This will help them recognize their own progress while helping others get the most from CEO. Again, first-generation college students may demonstrate the power of identity-specific advice from one's more experienced peers: Incoming first-generation students achieved better grades when they heard seniors tell tales of struggle that evoked their social-class backgrounds.

Crafting Criticism: Address the unwillingness of employers to give critical feedback. Perhaps it means changing the evaluation scales to emphasize positivity at each step. For example, a score of 1 could equate to a positive action still being done, but rarely, rather than indicating performance "needs improvement.” A score of 3 could indicate regular execution of a needed employment behavior. To be powerfully motivational, the feedback needs to try to help people reach a high standard that the reviewer believes is within feedback recipient's capabilities — it should be a wise intervention. It's also important to explain why critical feedback is valuable. Some of the supervisors have been incarcerated themselves and may hesitate to weigh in sharply out of sympathy and fear of being demoralizing. If they know the cost of withholding wise and rigorous criticism, they may be more inclined to give it.

Refining Feedback: CEO is already responding to its clients' feedback to improve their experiences. Researchers could help extract more value from that information by organizing it into psychologically informed categories. This structured data might then reveal trouble spots in the program, such as participants' encounters with stigmatization and isolation. Researchers could also help CEO connect this data to indicators of progress, potentially predicting a participant's likelihood of successfully completing the program.


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