Uncovering the economic growth/criminal justice reform link

Forum on criminal records

MassINC, the Massachusetts Bar Association, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston co-hosted a forum on criminal records policy last week at the John Adams Courthouse. The forum featured new research by the bank examining the impact of criminal records and criminal records reform legislation on employment. Bob Triest, a labor market economist who leads the bank’s New England Public Policy Center (NEPPC), set the stage for the discussion by noting that the bank is concerned criminal records may be harming productivity in the region.

Dr. Zhao (left) and Dr. Jackson (right)

NEPPC researchers Osborne Jackson and Bo Zhao took the stage and presented new research showing just how extensive criminal records have become. All told, 5.3 million individuals in New England have some form of a criminal record. This is equal to more than one-third of the region’s population. These individuals are not contributing at their full potential because the mark of a criminal record inhibits their ability to gain employment, which has major economic implications, particularly given the region’s aging workforce and relatively slow population growth.

The bank’s researchers also looked at recent efforts to reduce the stigma of a criminal record in Massachusetts. They found two rounds of change to criminal records policy in Massachusetts—legislative reform in both 2010 and 2012—reduced recidivism, but failed to increase employment or earnings.

A panel of respondents led a wide-ranging conversation on what this research suggest for criminal justice reform in Massachusetts broadly. Senator Will Brownsberger emphasized that employment will always be challenging because those who have served time in prison return to the community with education and work gaps in their resumes. With little education and training in prison and few opportunities for transitional employment upon release, our system is not set up to address this challenge.

In audience dialogue, workforce development leaders noted that they have demonstrated effective models for delivering these services, but they rely on unstable grants that dry up just as they are beginning to see results. Others questioned why the proposed justice reinvestment framework for Massachusetts does not provide meaningful funding for prison education and reentry services that clearly provide cost-effective recidivism reduction, as detailed in recent MassINC research.

There was also much conversation about how criminal justice leaders engage the private sector. Madeline Neighly, an expert on criminal records with the Council of State Governments, noted that a number of states have begun forming roundtables with private sector leaders to work collaboratively on solutions. Pauline Quirion, an attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services and a leader on criminal records reform in Massachusetts, noted that pending legislation supported by the Jobs Not Jails Coalition would do more to give individuals returning to the community the second chance they need to be successful. As Adrian Walker noted in his column, Darren Howell with the health care workers 1199 SEIU made the simple case for why it’s in our interest to get this right: When criminal records keep people from getting a job to support themselves and their families, “the streets are always hiring.”

This summary includes only a few nuggets from a very rich conversation. For those who were unable to attend, the videos below capture each segment of the program in full. You can download the PowerPoint presentation from the NEPPC.


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