Expert Commentary

Length of incarceration and subsequent labor market outcomes

2011 study followed the employment opportunities of 29,560 paroled inmates who had served between 3 months and 4 years in prison for a range of crimes.


Longer prison sentences, the result of public policy shifts over the past 30 years, may effectively discourage crime and repeat offenders. However, increased lengths of incarceration may have significant implications for convicted persons as they attempt to reintegrate into society after release.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, “Increase in the Length of Incarceration and the Subsequent Labor Market Outcomes: Evidence from Men Released from Illinois State Prisons,” followed the employment opportunities of 29,560 paroled inmates who had served between three months and four years in prison for a range of violent and non-violent crimes.

The study’s findings include:

  • The longer the prison stay, the greater the likelihood the convict will be hired upon release; the employment rate of former prisoners who were incarcerated for three to four years was 8.6% higher than the control group rate. However, the positive effects of incarceration length diminish over time, with those incarcerated for longer periods of time steady at 5.1% higher than the control group rate.
  • Individuals who spent 3 to 4 years in prison earn nearly $1,400 in their second quarter of re-entry in the labor market compared to those imprisoned for between 1 to 2 years, who average just under $1,000 in the same time period. The effect did not disappear after controlling for age differences.
  • Ex-convicts who entered prison suffering from substance abuse problems earn approximately 20% to 30% more for each year they are incarcerated. Those convicted of non-violent crimes experience similar benefits, with approximately $197 in additional quarterly earnings per year of incarceration.

The author suggests that longer sentences may provide individuals with substance abuse issues sustained access to rehabilitation programs and curtailed access to drugs and alcohol, the effects of which is reflected in improved post-incarceration employment opportunities and earnings. He also acknowledges that the study does not address a host of independent variables such as race, education, expected sentences, the impact of parole or pretrial jail time served, and may possibly reflect unique characteristics of the Illinois Department of Corrections and its inmate populations.

Tags: crime, employment, prisons

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