Employment as a factor in desistance from crime

Stephen Cunningham
Director Offender Employment & Reintegration, Department of Corrections

Author biography:
Stephen Cunningham has had 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. His work has been mainly with the Ministry of Social Development and the Department of Corrections.


A recent study (Coves & Bowes, 2015) showed there was a 20% reduction in returning to crime by non-violent offenders who had jobs compared to those who didn’t – indicating that employment does reduce recidivism. However, there was an important caveat; the sooner ex-offenders are employed, the less likely they are to commit future crimes.

“Not a lot of people can get up in the morning and say right, I’ve got a job to go to, and I do, so I’m very grateful for that. …. If I didn’t have a job, I would have been lost.” – Offender

To help ex-offenders into employment, the Department has made employment support, upon release or in the community, an important aspect of its core service delivery. It has done this by working collaboratively with employers, developing an employment support service and helping prisoners gain access to other social services. The aim of this approach is to ensure offenders get easier access to more jobs and support, and a service that is responsive to their needs as they reintegrate back into the community.

“That’s my biggest thing at the moment, not having employment. (Not) being able to afford stuff that my kids need.” – Offender

In March 2016 the Department of Corrections undertook some preliminary analysis comparing the post-sentence employment outcomes of those prisoners who completed employment and/or rehabilitation programmes against those who did not. The analysis showed that:

  • offenders who do both rehabilitation and employment programmes achieve better employment outcomes such as gaining employment, longer duration of employment and higher annual income, and
  • there is only a modest association between the type of industry undertaken by prisoners and the sector in which they obtain employment in post sentence.

Putting employers first

It is clear that if we do not proactively engage with employers we limit our ability to secure employment opportunities for ex-offenders. Over the past two years, employers have become a key stakeholder group for Corrections. In that time, 44 employers across New Zealand have offered some 350 positions to offenders. In addition, Corrections has been promoting the Release to Work (RtW) Programme, and introducing Employment Support Services to provide in-work support to ex-offenders.

This approach means Corrections staff are proactively working with offenders to ensure they have access to:

  • opportunities to learn about CV writing, participating in a workplace, job search techniques and career planning
  • recognised industry-related skills
  • social services
  • literacy, numeracy and ongoing education
  • a third party that will help them get a job and social support
  • a job.

In order to give offenders the relevant skills and access to jobs, we have elevated the importance of employers as a major stakeholder. It is they who provide the jobs for offenders upon release and they can tell us what skills are needed to do their jobs. The Department has gained significant momentum over the past two years to identify new employers willing to work with us to provide sustainable employment opportunities both prior and post release.

Working with employers

The rationale for working collaboratively with employers is to give offenders greater access to more jobs and give employers a reliable and productive workforce.
The Department is actively identifying employers that provide the types of jobs, support, role modelling and pro-social activity our job seekers need for sustainable employment and, ultimately, desistance from crime. Once identified, Corrections staff meet with the employer to understand their business needs and any specific requirements, usually the recruitment process, in order to make job opportunities visible to offenders and Corrections staff.

The Department currently has Memoranda of Understanding with 52 employers which will provide 423 job opportunities annually for offenders upon release.

Employer events

The Department is increasingly using events to introduce potential employers to the Corrections environment. For example, most prisons host employer expos each year, Spring Hill Corrections Facility has its own “Breakfast Behind Bars” for employers, and Rimutaka Prison participates in the “Wellington on a Plate” food festival with a prison event named “Gate-to-Plate”. Potential employers are able to view the training facilities, talk to potential employees and find out more about the rehabilitation offenders receive. The Department also uses these events as a way of thanking employers who have helped us to by offering offenders jobs, and providing training and mentoring opportunities.

An Auckland Employer Breakfast, held at the Pullman Hotel on 24 November 2015, was attended by approximately 80 of New Zealand’s largest employers to learn more about Corrections and how they might support our goal of reducing re-offending. The event was hosted by the Prime Minister and Minister of Corrections.

The employers were met by staff who showcased various aspects of prison life including rehabilitation programmes, education opportunities, and on-the-job training.

All attendees were offered coffee, tea and hot chocolate made by two baristas who are also prisoners serving sentences at Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility.

The employers also heard from an ex-offender who had spent over two decades in and out of various Corrections facilities. He spoke emotionally of his experiences, saying, “…without the support of Corrections and my employer, I would not have this second chance to make things right. I’m taking care of my family and people look up to me at work. That means everything to me”.

Employer feedback

The Auckland Employer Breakfast has resulted in over 29 expressions of interest from employers who were invited wanting to further engage with Corrections. Given the success of the Auckland breakfast, further events of this nature are being planned nationally.

“He’s always punctual, he works very hard and nothing is too much trouble — and he has not been in any trouble.” – Employer

The growth in the number of employers participating in Employer Partnerships has become a measure of the changing attitude towards offenders and the contribution they can make as they reintegrate back into society.

Other employment focussed programmes

Release to Work

The Release to Work programme has been in place for a number of years and is promoted to employers as a way to employ offenders as part of their workforce. Each day, carefully selected offenders are granted leave from prison to go out to work, then return to prison. The Department and employer maintain a close relationship and Corrections staff are available to support both the employer and the offender/employee to ensure a successful working relationship. Offenders participating in Release to Work are monitored by GPS or through other security arrangements that meet individual and employer circumstances.

Release to Work employees are paid market rates and are subject to the same terms and conditions as any other employee. In 2014/2015, 54% of those hired on Release to Work kept that job after they were released.

“We have used the Release to Work programme at our site for over two years involving more than 60 people. It has provided us with the benefits of reduced overheads and operational costs as well as improving our performance by reducing risk and increasing flexibility while saving time.” – Employer

In October 2014 we completed an Employer Satisfaction Survey to understand the levels of satisfaction with the programme. In total there were 101 responses from 174 people which represented 147 individual businesses. Most (93.1%) respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with their experience, 92% of job seekers turned up on day one with all or some of the skills required and 87.5% of respondents would recommend our service to another business. Employers participated in Release to Work for two main reasons:

  • to give people in prison a chance to make positive lifestyle changes, and
  • they viewed it as a service that helped build safer communities.

Employers widely commented that Corrections was viewed as a credible source of willing and reliable workers. Employees turned up every day and were drug free. They also found that the Release to Work programme was an efficient way of managing their changing workflow, or obtaining suitable workers at short notice. One employer noted the main reason for employing prisoners was to: “Give people in those situations a better chance to improve their attitude toward employment, valuing their skills, allowing them to gain their mana to balance their wairua.” *
Pink Bins Ltd, an Auckland recycling company that won the Corrections 2014 Employer of the Year Award for Release to Work Employers, sums up the attitude of Release to Work employers: “They (the offenders) work side-by-side with people outside of prison, and are treated like they should be – a decent person looking for an opportunity to improve themselves and have a second chance at life.”**

Employment focussed service providers

In 2014, the Department introduced the Employment Support Service (ESS), which provides support to prisoners to find and keep sustainable employment. The service offers different levels of in-work support and is made available in a majority of districts by external providers contracted to the Department. These providers were carefully selected for their proven experience in working with offenders who are displaced from the labour market. They have the necessary capability, staff and networks to support the key objectives of the Department.

The Coves & Bowes study (Coves & Bowes, 2015) also shows that providers who deliver employment services to ex-offenders should be paid only for results. This means that an ex-offender must be placed in a job and retained for a minimum period before the provider receives any money.

With the introduction of ESS, the Department has focused for the first time on providing services that are individually tailored to each offender. This new model is adapted from a supported employment model which has been well trialled and proven in the mental health, disability and welfare sectors.

Supported employment focuses on the strengths the offender brings to the employment relationship i.e. knowledge, skills and attributes. ESS ensures the offender moves rapidly towards independence by developing skills, collaborating on solutions to barriers, and gaining work-related experience and natural supports that run in tandem with their job matching. Getting the job is the primary focus of the service, whereas a conventional model may delay job searching until all required skills or solutions are in place.


While moving in the right direction, there is still more Corrections can do to enhance the contributions that businesses and the community make towards offender outcomes and the goals set by the Department. By establishing strong partnerships, all stakeholders can contribute to reducing re-offending, so people can live in a better, safer community.

For more information

New employers wanting a ‘first port of call’ to engage with Corrections can email Employer Partners. Your email will be read by the Employer Partnerships Team, who will notify the relevant regional contact to make that first connection.

*Employer response to the Employer Satisfaction Survey, Q4 “What was the main reason you decided to work with Corrections to employ a Corrections job seeker rather than use a different recruitment service or process?” October 2014

**Robert Teal Pink Bins Senior Operator speaking about the Release to Work Programme October 2014

Coves, P., and Bowes, L., June 2015 – ‘Immediate Access to Employment Reduces Recidivism’ – Real Clear Politics http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2015/06/11/immediate_access_to_employment_reduces_recidivism_126939.html