Author: Andrew Berger-Gross
“We know that 95% of people in prison will be released back into our communities. Tracking accurate data on employment after release will help to improve our reentry and rehabilitation efforts, which in turn will help to improve the chance those offenders experience successful reentry outcomes after prison.”
—N.C. Department of Adult Correction Secretary Todd Ishee
What happens to people after they leave our state’s prison system? How many find employment after prison? How much money do they earn? And how do these outcomes vary by race? The North Carolina Reentry Outcome Reporting System (NC-RORS) can answer all these questions and more. This article uses data from this new interactive tool to shed light on the employment outcomes of formerly incarcerated individuals.
NC-RORS tracks post-release employment outcomes with the help of data from our state’s Common Follow-up System (CFS). This new interactive tool, which is based on information submitted to the CFS by the NC Department of Adult Correction (DAC) and Division of Employment Security (DES), isn’t perfect, and it can’t answer every question about what happens after folks leave prison. But we plan to introduce further enhancements to this tool in the years to come, and even now, NC-RORS can tell us a lot about the state of reentry.
The first insight that emerges from NC-RORS is that formerly incarcerated individuals experience poor employment and wage-earning outcomes. Even amid the hot labor market of 2021, when job opportunities were plentiful and businesses were desperate to hire workers, fewer than half of people exiting state prisons in North Carolina were employed within a year after release, and those lucky enough to land a job earned a median of only around $7,500 per year [Figure 1].
Employment outcomes tend to vary with the business cycle: people typically have trouble finding work when the economy is in recession and are more likely to find work when the economy is growing. Indeed, post-release employment rates in North Carolina bottomed out at 31% during the depths of the Great Recession and improved over time as the economy recovered [Figure 2]. But even during what was arguably the tightest labor market on record, those exiting prison in 2021 were less likely to be employed than they were back in 1997, when 62% found work after prison.
Our previous research offered several explanations for why the employment outcomes of people exiting prison have gotten worse over the years, including: (i) the changing composition of the prison population, (ii) the increased prevalence of pre-employment criminal background checks, and (iii) the loss of employment opportunities for blue-collar workers. Data from NC-RORS reveals one more explanation: racial disparities.
Black people are disproportionately represented in our prison system: in 2021, they made up 51% of those incarcerated in North Carolina state prisons, more than double their 20% share of the overall statewide population. But when looking at employment outcomes, we see that black people getting out of prison were more likely to find work than their white counterparts [Figure 3]. In fact, the trend of declining employment rates has been almost entirely accounted for by the deteriorating outcomes of white people leaving prison.
This article offers only a sampling of what NC-RORS can tell us about post-release outcomes in North Carolina. Workforce professionals and criminal justice stakeholders can use these data to better understand the barriers faced by people getting out of prison and to help develop more effective reentry services. And all of us, whatever our backgrounds, can benefit from knowing more about a population that has historically been overlooked by many economists and statisticians. Stay tuned for future enhancements to this tool as we shed more light on the employment outcomes of formerly incarcerated individuals.
We will close with some words from the NC Commerce Secretary:
“North Carolina’s First in Talent Plan calls for increasing labor force participation by reducing barriers to employment, including expanding opportunities for jobseekers with justice-involved records, so they can rebuild their lives while also expanding the talent pipeline our businesses require. Our state’s NCWorks Career Centers are committed to providing training, coaching and job assistance to individuals reentering the workforce, and to connecting employers with the skilled workers they need—and the North Carolina Reentry Outcome Reporting System helps us ensure we’re meeting those objectives.”
—N.C. Department of Commerce Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders