Ex offenders are not a minority group in society

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These prevailing pressures have created a climate in which the recruitment of ex-offenders is no longer something to be ignored or avoided at all costs. More employers are beginning to recognize that ex-offenders are not a minority group in society. Startling statistics show that they are in fact a large group. For example, one in three adult men under the age of 30 has criminal convictions. Most of the offences are not very serious crimes and carry sentences of six months or less. Nevertheless, the stigma associated with offending has reduced the chances of a person with a criminal record getting employment.

This may not be surprising given that employers look for honesty and reliability in employees. Trust is a fundamental part of the unwritten psychological contract between employers and employees and once trust is broken, it is difficult to regain it. Nevertheless, the practice of marginalizing people who have a history of offending, even after they have fulfilled a punishment regarded as appropriate, is no longer tenable and may even compromise the rights of ex-offenders under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (Boshier, and Johnson,1974). Evidence in the report by the Social Exclusion Unit, Reducing Reoffending by Ex-Prisoners, identifies a number of important factors that influence rates of reoffending. Access to employment is key but unfortunately, ex-offenders are 13 times more likely to be unemployed than anyone else. Getting a job is the single most important factor in reducing reoffending, cutting the rate by between a third and a half can be of significant impact.

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It is estimated that the cost of reoffending, excluding damage and repair to property or the impact on the health of victims, is at least £11 billion per year. Work done by the CIPD shows that, despite a general reluctance among employers to be proactive in employing people with criminal convictions, the evidence from those who have shows their experiences are positive, not negative contrary to perceptions and expectations (Boshier, and Johnson,1974)

3.2 Levels of Unemployment among Offenders

The majority of offenders sentenced to imprisonment receive short sentences. By far the majority of prisoners, 66 per cent of all adult prisoners in 1999 served sentences less than 12 months long. In 1992, around 90 per cent of offenders faced unemployment on release from prison. Most offenders are male, with the peak offending age being 18. Most offenders cease to offend after the age of 25. Research by the CIPD revealed that employment is the single most important factor in reducing reoffending. Of the 144 HR professionals who have knowingly employed ex­offenders, only 8 have reported cases of reoffending. In addition, two thirds of HR managers state that employing ex­offenders has been a 'positive' experience.

In England and Wales, recidivism rates for the adult offender population are high with one Home Office Study finding a reconviction rate of 53.7%. Those convicted of sexual offences had the lowest rate of reconviction at 16.8%. The job opportunities of convicted offenders have been the focus of a range of studies. Frequently, they report data on convicted offenders and, in some cases, stipulate the offence. Regularly, the method used is an unobtrusive measure (Fletcher et al, 2001). They include such things like fabricated applications specifying or not specifying a criminal record, this method of using applications to newspaper advertisements has been applied in a range of contexts. In addition to its criminological application, the procedure has also been used to investigate housing discrimination against Aborigines (Downes, 1993).

3.3 The Role of Employment in Reducing Re-Offending

Programmes that target pragmatic areas of employment or address local skills scarcity are more likely to produce positive results than those that provide training for jobs in general. They are as well less likely to raise false hopes and expectations, as there is a greater chance of offenders finding real jobs (Fletcher et al 2001; Gormally et al 1981; Downes 1998). A Large number of studies (Gormally et al 1981; Sampson and Laub 1993) suggest that offenders are more likely to reoffend if they are unemployed. For example, Downes' (1998) study of the records of more than 7,000 offenders starting community sentences in 1993 found that, in all six of the areas studied, 'employment variables were, by themselves significantly related to reconviction rates and this result confirms the relationship found in other studies.'

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The study of 411 young male offenders carried out by Sampson, and Laub (1993) found that young men who persistently committed crimes for material gain committed around twice as many offences when unemployed as when in work. Bridges (1998) suggested that employment and family encourage desistance, as they involve individuals within a web of responsibilities, obligations, and institutions of social control that lead to a reduction in criminal association and behavior.

The Sampson, and Laub (1993) analysis of 400 studies covering over 40,000 juveniles aged 12-21 concluded that, 'the single most effective factor in reducing re-offending rates is employment. Graham and Bowling (1996), argue that it is how agents understand the role of employment and the nature of their social relationships that lies at the heart of desistance. It is with recourse to such narratives that this article attempts to expand upon the importance of social bonds for ex-offenders who enter employment

Therefore, it is important to consider the interaction between employment, self-identity, and the social relationships of ex-offenders (Graham, and Bowling, 1996).

Recently, greater emphasis has been placed on the narratives or scripts of disasters and the role that these play in self-understanding (Dickinson, 1993). This has provided useful insight into the way in which ex-offenders seek to reconstruct past events to formulate a cohesive, legitimate, and more positive identity (Sampson, and Laub, 1993). For many offenders, securing a job is often only one of many problems they may face; others may include drug/alcohol addiction, debt, and homelessness. In addition, as Downes (1993) points out, desistance from crime is strongly associated with finding stable jobs of sufficient income and quality to support a family.

This view is supported by Gill (1997) who, in a study based on interviews with offenders, employers, probation officers and training providers, concluded that for many, it is not a case of any job will do. Some ex-offenders had been successful criminals and they were not prepared to work unsociable hours for a pittance when easy pickings from crime were readily available. Various studies suggest that unemployment does contribute to the level of crime, but that it is only one of many factors. For example, Dickinson's (1993) review of 30 studies concluded, that unemployment is a factor in the causation of crime, although it may not be a major factor; furthermore it appears to be inter-related in some complex way with other aspects of economic disadvantage or social deprivation.

3.4 The difficulties offenders face in finding work

An increasing body of work has emerged which argues that it is the dual transition of employment and family formation, which leads individuals to turn away from offending behavior (Downes, 1993; Gill, 1997; Graham, and Bowling, 1996). Analysis of data carried out by Buikhuisen, & Dijksterhuis (1971) suggests that some offenders continue to face such difficulties throughout their lives. This is because early criminal convictions can deny young offenders job opportunities by precluding entry into apprenticeships and training opportunities. Thus, young offenders' long-term career advancements are limited and this, in turn, places a cap on their potential earnings.

The factors that cause offenders to become disadvantaged in the labor market have been acknowledged for some time. According to recent research carried out by Fletcher et al, (1998) and Gill (1997) some of the specific barriers to employment that offenders face include the following: employer attitudes, criminal records and offenders' concerns about disclosing their record, low self-esteem, confidence and motivation, behavioral problems, poor health, lack of qualifications, including poor basic skills, lack of recent work experience, participation in segregated social networks (they lack informal contacts for jobs), poverty, debt and insecure housing. For instance, about 70% of offenders and ex-offenders are high school dropouts. It is only one study, which indicated that, about half are "functionally illiterate" (Graham, and Bowling, 1996). Prior to incarceration, the employment rates of those involved in criminal activities are certainly not trivial in any sense. Nonetheless, they generally lag well behind those of other young men, even those who had similarly limited skills and also lived in poor inner- city neighborhoods (Sampson and Laub, 2001).

As a consequence, the work experience that they had accumulated prior to incarceration was generally well below what it possibly could have been in the lack of their participation in crime. On top of that, the (often multiple) periods of time they have spent incarcerated have impeded them from gaining any additional private sector experience, and no doubt helped erode whatever job skills, positive work habits or connections to employers they might have had beforehand (Davies,1974). Thus, if and when they do attempt to re-enter the labor market after incarceration, the poor skills and very limited work experience that they bring with them limits both employability and earnings potential (Gormally et al 1981).

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Besides these skills and health-related problems, most ex-offenders are minorities. Nearly half are African-American, and nearly a fifth are Latino or Asian. To the extent that minorities continue to suffer labor market discrimination, this will further impede the ability of ex-offenders to gain employment or earn higher wages. Indeed, the evidence we cite below suggests that African-American men continue to face significant discrimination relative to all other groups at the hiring stage (Sampson and Laub, 2001).

In addition to the "barriers" these individuals face, which they presumably have little control over, the attitudes and choices that they make may also limit their employment outcomes. For instance, it is likely that a large number of these men might be able to find some kind of work if they search long enough, but at jobs that pay very low wages and provide few benefits or chances for upward mobility. In this situation, several ex-offenders may simply prefer to forego these employment options, in favor of illegal opportunities or more casual work (Davies, 1974). Alternatively, they may accept these jobs temporarily, but may not retain them for very long. Their attachments to the legitimate labor market might be quite tenuous over the longer term both as a result of these relatively unappealing options, or perhaps because of their own estrangement over several years from the world of work (Graham and Bowling 1996).

3.5 Disclosing the Conviction to an Employer

Fletcher et al, (2001) found that discrimination is further increased because employers are largely unaware of the two pieces of legislation that govern the recruitment of offenders in England and Wales. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 provides that offenders applying for jobs do not have to disclose criminal convictions that have become 'spent'. Of the 400 employers surveyed, less than half felt that they fully understood its main provisions in relation to their recruitment practices.

The same is true of the Police Act 1997, which includes provision for a Basic Disclosure system that will enable all employers to obtain criminal record information about all prospective employees and volunteers, irrespective of whether the posts they are seeking to recruit to involve working with vulnerable people (Graham and Bowling 1996). The survey showed that employers will make extensive use of the Basic Disclosure system and are likely to make inappropriate use of the information it will provide. As a consequence, the researchers concluded that the Basic Disclosure system 'will heighten discrimination against offenders in the labor market'.

This development has inevitably led to employers increasingly demanding information about criminal convictions.

A study in Los Angeles found that the percentage of employers checking the criminal records of applicants rose over 10 per cent to 60 percent between 1993 and 2001 (Graham, and Bowling, 1996). Similarly, a survey conducted in the North West of England found that approximately two-thirds of employers requested information on an applicant's criminal record, with 60 per cent asking for this regardless of the post they were seeking to fill (Fletcher et al, 2001). This has adversely affected the employment prospects of ex-offenders. Research shows that 75 per cent of employers indicate that they would treat a candidate with a criminal record less favorably (Gormally et al 1981).

3.6 Employers' Attitudes towards the Recruitment of Offenders

A number of surveys on how employers respond to job applications from offenders have shown that recruiter discrimination makes it extremely difficult for offenders to find employment. Surveys carried out by the Apex trust, (1990), Conalty and Cox (1999) and Fletcher et al, (2001), for example, have identified a general reluctance among employers to recruit offenders, with offences of a violent and sexual nature or offences against property being considered the most serious. In addition, most employers seek criminal record information from job applicants and relatively few have knowingly recruited an offender in the past.

In the study done by Fletcher et al (2001), the reasons for this level of discrimination were explored. When recruiters were asked to rate the individual attributes that were considered the most important in new recruits, traits such as honesty, reliability, and motivation were cited. As employers have a natural desire to recruit low-risk employees, the disclosure of a criminal record was frequently equated to a lack of reliability and was therefore considered reason enough to reject the application (Dickinson 1993).

Employers' response to convicted men was the focus of a study by Conalty and Cox (1999) whose records were based on the attitudes and actions of employers in the English town of Reading. He tried to answer questions relating to attitudes and practices of employers towards men previously convicted of criminal offences, concerning men currently in employment, and suspected of committing criminal offences. The emerged data from this study indicated that at least two-thirds of all firms in Reading had employed offenders at some time or another. Approximately 55% of offenders stayed in their employment for at least six months and employers directed greater discrimination towards sexual offenders.

Sampson and Laub, (2001) observe the issue of the employment of convicted offenders as a sociological study of "legal stigma". One of their empirical studies engrosses the use of four employment folders given to 100 unwitting employers and the four settings were applicant with no criminal record, applicant acquitted with letter testifying innocence, applicant acquitted without letter, and applicant convicted. The positive responses declined from no criminal record to convict with crime through the order of conditions given and the negative responses increased through that order. The authors concluded that legal stigma operates systematically on job opportunities. Stigmatization was also the subject of a study by Boshier, and Johnson (1974)

For example, Bridges (1998) examined the experiences of 739 offenders under probation supervision by 11 probation services. The study established that offenders, who were unemployed on commencement of probation supervision and received an employment intervention, were twice as likely to gain employment before supervision ended than those who received no employment intervention. The research also found that employment interventions were as effective in areas of high unemployment as they were in relatively prosperous areas.

3.7 Employment programmers

Research carried out during the 1970s on the effectiveness of employment programmes for offenders, found little evidence of reduced reconviction rates. The conclusion of Davies (1974), for example, that, 'on the basis of the existing evidence, it does not seem likely that the employment problems of offenders can be significantly alleviated by manpower programmes, or that these programmes will have a noticeable impact on the rate of crime' was in keeping with a 'nothing works' approach to offender rehabilitation, which remained unchallenged until the beginning of the 1990s (Boshier, and Johnson, 1974).

Programmes that target pragmatic areas of employment or address local skills' scarcity are more likely to produce positive results than those that provide training for jobs in general. They are as well less likely to raise false hopes and expectations, as there is a greater chance of offenders finding real jobs (Downes 1998; Fletcher et al 2001). Since then, a growing number of studies have provided evidence that offender programmes can have a significant impact on criminal behavior (Graham, and Bowling, 1996), and some studies have begun to show that employment programmes can be effective. In the recent studies, a Home Office evaluation (Dickinson, 1993) of two probation-based employment programmes, showed positive employment outcomes for 12 and 25 per cent of participants respectively. The research also showed that offenders who attended the programmes had lower reconviction rates than non-attenders.

3.8 Conclusion

Although training for offenders is provided in a number of settings, including in prisons, on probation and with specialist agencies, there is overwhelming evidence that work opportunities for offenders are sternly restricted. This is due to the fact that a high percentage of offenders have poor numeracy and literacy skills and need training in basic skills before they are able to progress to employment programmes; much training for offenders is unrelated to the specific skills requirements of employers and to the discrimination that many offenders face when they apply for jobs; and, because job programmes for ex-offenders have been poorly funded in the past, they have therefore been unable to develop good practice over the long term.