Saturday, March 10, 2018

From "Nothing Works" to "Something Works"

This morning, the Guardian is covering a great vocational program in Southern California called Manifest Works, "an immersive workforce development and job placement organization; we turn real-world experience into learning opportunities for those impacted by foster care, homelessness, and incarceration." From the Guardian story:
One of the most common entry points into the entertainment industry is as a production assistant, or PA. The PA might get coffee, run electrical cords, or break down the set; the job’s chameleonic nature makes it a behind-the-scenes linchpin. Manifest Works, a not-for-profit based in Los Angeles, ties the hustle of a PA job to its training program for people affected by incarceration, homelessness and foster care. Some participants had been out of prison as little as three months. 
Williams spoke softly and deliberately, rocking back and forth in his crisp white sneakers. He applied to the program after an alum recommended him. He was doing security before that. “Not what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “This is giving me an opportunity to pursue something closer to what I wanted for myself.” 
He still wasn’t sure what on-set role he’d like most. “Everybody wants to be the director,” he said, knowingly. 
California, as the country’s most populous state, has one of its highest prison populations, and the highest population of people on probation or parole. It is also home to the multibillion-dollar entertainment industry. 
A 2017 study in the Economic Journal evaluated the career trajectories of 1.7 million people released from California prisons between 1993 and 2008, and concluded that, while employment curbs recidivism among the released, the quality of opportunities may be more important than the quantity available. 
Sixty-three people have completed the Manifest Works program since it began in fall 2014. Many have established steady freelance careers doing production work. No alum has gone back to prison.
What do they mean by "quality of opportunities?" The study referred to in the Guardian story is by Kevin Schnepel, an economist from the University of Sydney and you can find it here. The abstract reads:
I estimate the impact of employment opportunities on recidivism among 1.7 million offenders released from a California prison between 1993 and 2008. The institutional structure of the California criminal justice system as well as location, skill, and industry-specific job accession data provide a unique framework for identifying a causal effect of job availability on criminal behaviour. I find that increases in construction and manufacturing opportunities at the time of release are associated with significant reductions in recidivism. Other types of opportunities, including those characterised by lower wages that are typically accessible to individuals with criminal records, do not influence recidivism.
This kind of careful study is exactly what we need to counter the despair of the "nothing works" legacy. Because of the dramatic cuts to rehabilitation and vocational programs, which I discuss in Cheap on Crime, opportunities in California prisons really vary. San Quentin benefits from its proximity to the Bay Area, which guarantees an influx of volunteers--but are they programs they offer really effective? More importantly, why are opportunities in construction and manufacturing more important in curbing recidivism than opportunities in other fields, such as service?

A few things come to mind: construction and manufacturing are opportunities that structure one's day in addition to providing an income. It's easier to stay the course when you have to be somewhere and perform a job that shows tangible improvement (i.e., putting together a kitchen or producing X gadgets.) They are also jobs that, in the right setting, can provide camaraderie, and have fairly strong unions. But who knows if this is true? To understand why some job opportunities are more effective, we'd need to interview formerly incarcerated folks who are employed in these jobs and ask them about their day and their thoughts about this.

In any case, it's important for prisons to follow up on studies such as Schnepel's and on the success of programs such as Manifest Works. Resources are limited, and they need to be invested where they'd yield real results.

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