Supporting offenders into employment

Marama Edwards
Associate Deputy Chief Executive, Service Delivery, Ministry of Social Development

Stephen Cunningham
Director Offender Employment and Reintegration, Department of Corrections

Author biographies:
Marama Edwards is of Ngapuhi, Te Rarawa and Ngati Ruanui descent. Marama started her career as a chartered accountant for Price Waterhouse before embarking on 22 years of public service with Work and Income, Child, Youth and Family, the Northland District Health Board and the Ministry of Social Development.

Stephen Cunningham has had over 18 years’ experience in developing welfare-to-work strategies and other labour market interventions that support people who are persistently displaced from the labour market. His work has been mainly with the Ministry of Social Development and the Department of Corrections.


Approximately 7,700 people leave prison every year in New Zealand. Research shows that prisoners face a range of challenges on their release, including finding stable accommodation, obtaining and maintaining employment, reconnecting with partners, family and friends, and re-establishing themselves in the community (Bevan, 2015; Duwe, 2015; Petersilia, 2003). Offenders often have issues that can make their reintegration more difficult.

Drug and alcohol abuse

Drug and alcohol abuse is strongly correlated with mental health disorders. Prisoners often have high levels of drug and alcohol abuse which results in lower employment prospects prior to and after their release from prison (Debus, Visher and Yahner, 2008).

A 2015 study (Bowman, 2015) showed that New Zealand prisoners have considerably more issues with substance abuse than the general population, and their mental health is significantly worse. Over their lifetime, 87% of the prisoners surveyed had been diagnosed with a substance use disorder and 46% had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder (excluding alcohol or drugs). Over a 12-month period, almost two-thirds of prisoners surveyed had been diagnosed with either of these disorders, and this was three times higher than the general population.

Literacy and numeracy issues

Between 1 July 2015 and 23 August 2016, 8,088 literacy and numeracy assessments were completed using the Literacy and Numeracy Adult Assessment Tool (LNAAT) as part of the Department of Corrections’ Education Assessment and Learning Pathway process. The data obtained shows that up to 63% of prisoners have literacy and numeracy levels below Level 1 on the NZQA framework. Level 1 is deemed to be the standard required to be competent with everyday life tasks; for example reading children’s reports, an employment contract or understanding a tenancy agreement.

Around 27% of prisoners are at steps 1 and 2 on the Adult Literacy and Numeracy Progressions, meaning they are considered to have the highest level literacy and numeracy needs. A further 36% of prisoners are at step 3 literacy and step 3 and 4 numeracy. Various programmes available in prison and the community, support these learners to achieve literacy competency to a Level 1 standard (step 4 literacy and step 5 numeracy).

A study of released prisoners in the United Kingdom showed 52-71% of prisoners had no qualifications compared to 15% of the general population; 48% of prisoners were reading at or below the level of an 11-year-old compared to 23% of the general population; and 65% of prisoners had numeracy levels at or below the levels expected of an 11-year-old compared to 23% of the general population (Clark and Dugdale, 2008).

Discrimination and stigmatisation

People with a criminal conviction history may be barred from many jobs because a large number of employers discriminate against people with criminal records. Schmitt and Warner (2010) found that the vast majority of employers (80-90%) preferred hiring people with little work experience or lengthy unemployment, than ex-prisoners. Discrimination and stigmatisation of ex-prisoners may be preventing large numbers of work-ready ex-prisoners from finding employment in New Zealand.

Existing initiatives for prisoners

To improve the likelihood of prisoners obtaining employment on their release, the Department of Corrections (Corrections) provides various education programmes, and training and employment opportunities in prisons. These include literacy and numeracy up-skilling, as well as industry training including farming, forestry, horticulture, engineering, welding, construction, catering, plumbing, painting, machine operation, and traffic control. Qualifying prisoners can gain work experience in the community through Release to Work. In addition, Corrections helps released prisoners into work through its navigation service Out of Gate, as well as its Employment Support Services.

Despite this assistance, many prisoners still have difficulties finding employment on their return to the community.

History of criminal convictions

Offenders who have been convicted of a crime and served some type of criminal sentence are heavily over-represented in the welfare population (Greenfield, Miller, McGuire and Wolanski, 2015):

  • About a quarter of the 2014/15 beneficiary population have a criminal conviction in their past; for males it is four in ten. One in ten welfare clients has been to prison and one in ten has been convicted of a violence-related crime.
  • There is a strong statistical relationship between welfare clients who have been convicted and served a sentence and long-term benefit receipt. People in the 2015 valuation cohort who have committed a crime leading to a sentence have an average future lifetime welfare cost that is over $37,000 higher than those without such history. About 40% of this difference is directly attributable to the circumstances of those having criminal histories (as measured by the existence of criminal convictions). The remainder reflects correlation with other risk factors. The proportion directly attributable to the circumstances of having a criminal history is larger for people who have spent more time serving sentences.
  • Benefit payments to current welfare clients with a past community or custodial sentence represent a third of the total current client liability – well over their 25% share of the welfare client population.

For all clients aged 22 to 24 (inclusive) for whom Child, Youth and Family – Youth Justice (CYF-YJ) data and several years of adult Corrections data are available (Greenfield et al, 2015):

  • About one in ten has a YJ history and two in ten have an adult criminal conviction
  • About 70% of clients with a YJ history have an adult criminal conviction on record (five times the rate of those without a YJ history)
  • About 36% of clients with an adult criminal conviction have a YJ history too (nearly ten times the rate of those without an adult criminal conviction).

Correlations amongst risk factors

For clients aged less than 25, we now have a significant number of factors to understand their risk of long-term benefit receipt. One important feature is that these factors correlate – that is, people with one risk factor tend to have higher incidences of other risk factors. For example (Greenfield et al, 2015) :

  • 36% of the cohort has some CYF history, but this rate is 1.6 times higher (56%) for the subset of the cohort with intensive family benefit history.
  • Young adult beneficiaries with care and protection history are 1.7 times more likely to have had YJ or criminal conviction history.
  • Those from long-term beneficiary families are 1.5 times as likely to have a YJ or conviction history.

Meanwhile, as noted above, about 70% of beneficiaries aged 22 to 24 with a YJ history also have criminal convictions as adults (five times the rate of those without a YJ history). This shows that risk factors are closely inter-related, and that family vulnerability in childhood and youth is associated with early contact with both welfare and justice systems – and more intensive contact in adulthood.

Supporting Offenders into Employment trial

To further assist prisoners into employment on their release, MSD and Corrections are trialling two services over a three year period. Funding for this trial was secured through the Budget 2016, for a total of $15.3 million. The aim of this trial is to improve employment outcomes for ex-prisoners, reduce re-offending rates, and generate fiscal savings and reduce liability.

MSD in-house Intensive Client Support service

The MSD in-house Intensive Client Support service began in October 2016 in five districts across the North Island: Whangarei, Waitakere, Palmerston North, Hastings and Porirua. These districts were selected primarily due to their proximity to prisons and the volume of prisoners released into those areas.

An intensive client support manager (ICSM), employed by MSD, works from a Work and Income service centre in one of the five districts noted above. They have a case load of up to 40 ex-prisoners and begin working with them approximately 10 weeks prior to release from prison. They continue to manage that offender for 12 months, even if the offender gains employment.

To help offenders, the ICSM has a range of tools including:

  • discretionary funds to pay for birth certificates and other items
  • education and training grants
  • in-work incentive payments if they remain in employment after reaching certain milestones.

The ICSM meets offenders in the prison prior to release to begin building a relationship and to help the prisoner access housing, financial support, and complete pre-benefit activities including CV preparation. The ICSM works closely with Corrections case managers to ensure a good understanding of the needs of the prisoner, the conditions of release, and how they impact on employment and other activities.

Once the prisoner has been released, the ICSM works with the new ex-prisoner and their probation officer. While the probation officer manages standard and special conditions ordered by the Courts or the Parole Board, the ICSM helps the ex-prisoner gain access to services that address any health, reintegration, financial and employment barriers. This includes housing, mental and physical health needs, education and training and any other barriers to employment.

The long-term outcomes expected from this trial include higher levels of employment and less dependency on benefits with reduced re-offending rates. Other outcomes include:

  • 20% of ex-prisoners will enter into long-term employment (i.e. lasting two years or longer)
  • mental and physical health conditions are identified, treated and managed
  • alcohol and drug conditions are identified, treated and managed
  • more ex-prisoners will engage in education and gain qualifications, including NCEA level 1 and 2
  • 75% will participate in or complete skills development or training relevant to labour market.

External contracted service

The second service is an externally contracted service for the Canterbury region which begins in November 2016 and will take referrals from the three prisons in that region. A service provider will be contracted for three years to deliver an innovative and holistic service with a multidisciplinary approach including mental and physical health, education and employment, reintegration and housing. They will co-ordinate care and support beginning 10 weeks before release from prison and continuing for 12 months. The provider of this service will be expected to support 200 participants at any one time, resulting in:

  • at least 20% of participants entering into employment immediately after release and 50% of participants securing employment within nine months of release
  • all participants having an education and training plan that leads to or supports them in employment
  • all participants with mental health (including anger and violence), physical health or substance abuse issues being reassessed (directly or through referral) and treated (with the probation officer’s approval)
  • all participants having suitable and stable housing (e.g. no garages, no houses without electricity or water, no “couch-surfing” with no fixed address of their own)
  • all participants connecting with positive networks within their wider family/whänau and cultural groups.


MSD and Corrections will monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the two services using the most suitable evaluation methodology.

A process evaluation will be done at six months and will include interviews with key stakeholders including Corrections case managers, intensive client support managers, Work and Income case managers, external providers (i.e. Christchurch based specialists), probation officers, employers and clients.

Impact evaluations at 12, 24 and 36 months will help to determine whether the Supporting Offenders into Employment trial is making a difference to outcomes. Impact evaluations will involve identifying a control group or “counterfactual” that shows what would have happened to the same people if the service did not exist.


Andrews, G., Allnut, S., Basson, J., Butler, T., Sakashita, C., and Smith, N. (2006) Mental disorders in Australian prisoners: a comparison with a community sample. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.

Bevan, M. (2015) Desistance from crime: A review of the literature. Practice, The New Zealand Corrections Journal. Vol 3, Issue 1, 5-9. Department of Corrections

Bowman, J. (2015) Co-morbidity research – Part one. Practice, The New Zealand Corrections Journal, Vol 3, Issue 2, 33 – 34. Department of Corrections

Clark, C., and Dugdale, G. (2008) Literacy Changes Lives – The role of literacy in offending behaviour, London: National Literacy Trust

Debus, S., Visher, C., and Yahner, J. (2008) Employment after Prison: a longitudinal study of releases in three states, Research Brief. Washington DC: Urban Institute

Duwe, G. (2015) The benefits of keeping idle hands busy: An outcome evaluation of a prisoner re-entry employment program. Crime and Delinquency, Vol 61, Issue 4, 559-586

Greenfield, A. Miller, H., McGuire, G., and Wolanski, K. (2015) Valuation of the Benefit System for Working-age Adults. Taylor Fry Pty Ltd.

MSD (2015). Client Segmentation of clients in the 2014 valuation of the benefit system for working age adults. Supporting Offenders into Employment trial – ILM Workshop.

Petersilia, J. (2003) When prisoners come home: Parole and prisoner re-entry. New York: Oxford University Press

Schmitt, J. & Warner, K. (2010) Ex-offenders and the Labor Market. Washington DC: Centre for Economic and Policy Research.