Targeting recidivism of ex-offenders through the use of employment

Stephen Cunningham
Director Offender Employment and Reintegration, Department of Corrections

Author biography:

Stephen Cunningham has over 15 years’ experience in developing welfare-to-work strategies and other labour market interventions that support people who are persistently displaced from the labour market. The work has been mainly with the Ministry of Social Development and the Department of Corrections.

Recidivism pressures for ex-offenders

Researchers have often highlighted the considerable obstacles faced by ex-prisoners once they are released into the community. Their reintegration is hampered by many barriers such as finding employment, substance abuse, mental health, accommodation and low skills. All of these factors, if not addressed, substantially contribute to a high recidivism rate among ex-offenders (Weigard, Sussell, Valentine, Henderson 2015; Lockwood, Nally 2016; Jehner, Paddock and Willison 2016; Ramakers Wilsem, Nieuwbreerta and Dirkzwager 2015; Cherney and Fitzgerald 2016; Bergen, Bressler 2016).

The importance of employment in recidivism for ex-offenders

Employment is thought to be one of the biggest factors in curbing recidivism. As Jahner et al (2016) state, it “is one of the most deeply embedded markers of adult success and social acceptance and is strongly related to individuals’ physical, mental and social health”. This does not mean that by sourcing employment ex-offenders will not re-offend but as Weigard, et al (2015) assert “many prisoners identify finding a job as one of their highest post-release priorities. It is therefore reasonable to hypothesise that interventions that boost employment and earnings among ex-offenders may also lead to reductions in recidivism”.

If employment is a key contributor to reducing recidivism, the recruitment process becomes critical from the perspective of the ex-offender and the employer. Let’s look at Corrections’ increasing role in that process.

Getting a job: An ex-offender’s perspective

Getting a job is a daunting process for most ex-offenders and is further compounded by a lack of understanding of how and where to even start. Ex-prisoners have significant barriers to employment including their criminal convictions that prevent a large proportion from obtaining sustainable employment. International research and evaluation of the welfare system in 2014 (Ministry of Social Development, 2016) showed that ex-prisoners in New Zealand are highly likely to have the following employment barriers:

  • low employment related skills
  • low levels of education
  • high levels of mental health conditions and drug and substance abuse
  • high levels of re-offending
  • anti-social networks.

Low literacy levels present a significant obstacle for any job seeker but are particularly true for most ex-offenders who are not educationally competent enough to meet job demands (Lockwood et al, 2016). It is estimated that 65% of the current prison population have a literacy level below the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) Level 1 (Corrections, June 2016).

A credible work history often forms the basis for many hiring decisions. Many ex-offenders don’t have credible work experience, so they struggle to show their value to an organisation. In New Zealand, many of the approximately 7,700 prisoners who leave prison every year remain detached from the labour market with 80% having benefit spells over 12 months after release. The absence of work experience often limits an ex-offender’s overall networks to not only secure another job, but restricts the motivation and experience for the ex-offender (Lockwood et al, 2016).

Therefore it is no surprise for ex-offenders to have limited knowledge of job preparation and job search; particularly, as most employers will use online applications and searches. Ex-offenders will experience difficulty in reading and understanding the job descriptions and navigating through an online process.

A low number of job interview experiences will mean there are fewer opportunities for feedback and to learn how to deliver a message that will meet an employer’s needs, even if the applicant has the right skills, qualifications and motivation to do the job. This is a self-perpetuating issue – without feedback the cycle of job rejections is likely to continue (Holzer, Raphael & Stoll, 2003).

Financial barriers present another major obstacle to securing a job. A lack of income means difficulty in funding transport to work or even appropriate work clothes to suit the job. If an employer is interested in offering a job, there is no guarantee the ex-offender can practically start on the first day (Jahner et al, 2016). For a large number of prisoners it is difficult to obtain accommodation on release, which is a barrier to successful reintegration and we know securing stable accommodation is crucial to not just getting, but staying in a job.

Even if a job is secured, there is typically a low understanding of how to negotiate the remuneration package or even manage a budget on an ongoing basis. There appears to be a low level of support on how to talk to employers about pay related matters and ex-offenders can be caught in a low pay situation for longer periods.

A study by Corrections in 2015 found 62% of newly sentenced prisoners had experienced substance abuse and mental health issues within the last 12 months. Around half of New Zealand prisoners have substance abuse problems and over 50% of crime is committed by people under the influence of drugs or alcohol (Corrections Annual Report 2016). Often an ex-offender is unlikely to have the right support or knowledge of where to access these services and continue any treatment they may have had during their sentence, which again can jeopardise access into a job and reduce their ability to keep it.

Finding staff: An employer’s perspective

All employers will have their own set of criteria and processes when looking to employ staff, whether it is by word of mouth, via an online process or through recruitment agencies. Typically they are looking for a relevant level of educational proficiency, verified work experience with credible referees, a self-motivated applicant who lives locally, is drug and offence free and will fit in with the employer’s work environment.

An appropriate level of educational proficiency is a guiding principle for most employers. Employers need to be sure a staff member is able to follow instructions, read important information and in many cases follow their own self-directed learning. Even for less literacy focused industries, there is still a minimum expectation that a staff member can understand basic rules around health and safety, written signage and record keeping of work output to meet a minimum requirement by law.

A credible work history presents another important aspect of decision-making; an employer needs to know if the applicant can do the job. Typically employers look to match applicants into jobs in which they have already proven themselves. This mitigates any risk, and increases overall worker productivity and it shows that an applicant is able to conform to a more formal hierarchy (Ramakers et al, 2015).

To reduce costs, sometimes employers will source candidates from other loyal or high performing staff. The rationale being that these colleagues are likely to recommend colleagues of a similar ability. These candidates usually have good networks and have built a reputation of reliability.

Typically employers who have larger volumes of applicants will use recruitment systems to screen out unsuitable applicants. These screening methods usually use a “tick box” system that rejects applicants with criminal convictions. This will rule out ex-offenders before they have even gained consideration. An emphasis on organisational behaviours and group personality means that employers feel ex-offenders present a risk to the harmony of the group and a perceived threat to the work environment (Bergen et al, 2016).

Online applications, tailored curriculum vitae (CVs), and cover letters are needed for most employers. Applications are judged not only on the content but on style and format. A well presented CV with good work history, skills and referees will usually get the applicant to the next step of an interview.

As well as having the skills to do the job (or proven history to learn the skills), employers need evidence applicants are able to manage themselves and have adequate support and resources to perform a daily job. This will include adequate accommodation, the ability to travel to work and some general understanding of their family support and how to access any support they may need.

References are usually taken at the end of the recruitment process. This enables employers to check impressions they have of an applicant, and if they are backed up by past employers. It is also a means to investigate any red flags. Lastly a drug test is completed along with a police check as the final step.

Corrections has its own Employment Service

Now that we have explored the perspectives of an ex-offender wishing to enter the labour market compared to an employer’s perspective on what labour they need and how they attract it, to match the two on paper seems an overwhelming challenge.

While there are many organisations in the community that support people into employment, only a few are motivated or funded to tailor a service for prisoners upon release or those sentenced in the community. Corrections has, therefore, built its own Employment Service that has three objectives; preparing for work, getting a job and staying in work.

Preparing for work

Expectations are set early by case managers who prepare an individualised offender plan that sets out the types of skills, treatment and learning a prisoner can expect to participate in while incarcerated.

Where possible, the first priority at the start of a prison sentence is to begin the rehabilitation process and lift educational skill levels. For the 2016/17 financial year Corrections will aim to deliver a range of rehabilitation programmes to 11,082 prisoners. This includes programmes such as:

  • high intensity programmes in Special Treatment Units for sexual and violent offenders
  • medium intensity programmes for more general offending issues
  • drug and alcohol treatment
  • family violence programmes.

In addition to this, Corrections funds a range of rehabilitation programmes that are delivered in the community, such as drug and alcohol and other motivational programmes.

In terms of lifting prisoners’ educational levels, Corrections has a wide selection of programmes aimed at improving literacy, numeracy and vocational levels. For example, this year Corrections and tertiary education providers will deliver a range of tailored support:

  • 1,300 places for intensive literacy and numeracy support
  • 2,000 prisoners will receive qualification enrolments with tertiary education providers
  • 2,020 will undertake their own self directed learning opportunities
  • 1,506 prisoners will participate in educational activity using secured online services
  • Approximately 4,000 prisoners will participate in vocational programmes such as driver licences, construction, hospitality, farming and agricultural skills, to name a few.

Getting a job

Alongside this, Corrections has implemented a number of ways to provide soon to be released prisoners, and offenders in the community, an individualised employment plan, support through the recruitment process and access to a job post release. For many years Corrections staff have supported prisoners and offenders in the community to gain access to a job and other support. But more recently, Corrections has increased its capacity to provide a specialised employment service.

For example, Corrections Community Education Employment Officers (CEEOs), Employment Placement Specialists and the newly established Offender Recruitment Consultants (ORCs) are not only skilled in placing people into jobs, they have the primary responsibility of maintaining our employer partners and sourcing new job opportunities with employers. Corrections currently has 100 signed employment partnerships where employers offer to work with Corrections to ensure ex-prisoners and offenders in the community get to participate in their recruitment process. While these 100 are “pledging” to offer 966 job opportunities, in reality Corrections engages with many more employers across the country in a range of ways.

To support placements into employment Corrections also has employer starter packs, which is a payment of up to $1,500 to address minor barriers to work. Barriers to work typically include licence fees, tolls and protective clothing, transport costs in the first week or entry level training courses such as Site Safe etc.

Corrections also has a network of external service providers who are contracted to provide individual assessments that inform employment and career plans followed by placement with up to six months in-work support. These Employment Support Service providers are also required to engage with the business community to source job opportunities. For the period ending January 2017 there has been 754 referrals to this service.

In-work support

Once employment is confirmed Corrections will often continue to provide support to ensure the ex-prisoner has every chance of achieving independence through sustainable employment. This is primarily done through probation officers, the CEEOs and the network of Employment Service Support providers.

Through these dedicated positions Corrections will provide tailored employment assistance to over 7,900 prisoners and offenders in the community. This assistance includes: career planning, job seeker support, placement and in-work support.

Research has also shown us that an individual’s ability to find and maintain sustainable employment is influenced by a complex range of factors, including interaction with the justice system, housing, family circumstances and personal drivers and motivations. More specifically, securing accommodation as soon as possible is a critical factor in not just getting, but keeping, a job.

Along with the strong focus on employment Corrections also provides a range of reintegration services that offer individualised wrap-around support services for up to six months post release. These include a light touch navigation service and transitional accommodation, and will provide support for a minimum of 4,118 prisoners post release.


As research demonstrates, employment plays a large part in integrating ex-prisoners back into the community, which in turn has a positive effect on recidivism. Although a considerable gulf may exist between the ex-offender’s skill set and an employer’s expectations, there are a number of services now available to support sustainable employment.

Employment preparation starts in prison with rehabilitation, education and vocational programmes to address deep rooted issues and give the prisoner a platform to work from. A tailored offender plan provides a pathway towards release and is carried on in the community with support from probation officers.

Specialist staff and service providers with a strong employment focus then tailor an employment plan and begin the matching process. The employers we work with have provided a wider range of job opportunities than ever before and they are very much on board to continue to support those who are motivated to work.

The barriers to work are many and complex, so care is given to continue in-work support and other reintegration services, in order for the employment to remain sustainable.


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Department of Corrections (2016) Department of Corrections’ Annual Report 2015-2016. Wellington: Department of Corrections.

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