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Washington Work Release Reduces Recidivism

A report of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) found that Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) work release reduces total recidivism by 2.8 percent and felony recidivism by 1.8 percent, but had no effect on violent felony recidivism. The report concludes that work release generates $3.82 of benefits per dollar of cost, or about $2,300 per work release participant, in future benefits to tax payers and crime victims from the reduced recidivism.

Washington’s work release program was enacted in 1967, allowing certain WDOC prisoners to serve up to six months of their sentence in a residential facility while employed in the community. Violent offenders—murder, assault, rape, and kidnapping—are ineligible for work release. Today, approximately 700 prisoners participate in work release at one of WDOC’s 16 work release facilities.

In 2007 the Washington legislature passed an adult offender re-entry initiative, designed to reduce recidivism. It also directed WSIPP to evaluate WDOC’s existing work release program to determine whether it actually reduces recidivism.

WSIPP studied offenders released from prison between January 1, 1998, and July 31, 2003, and measured recidivism through September 2007. During that time, 35,475 prisoners were released but only 32 percent, or 11,413, participated in work release. Of them, 368 offenders, or 3.2 percent, committed new offenses while participating in work release. Ninety-three percent of the 368 had been identified as “high risk” offenders. In total, 22 percent of the work release group were unsuccessful.

Work release participants tend “to have more criminal history, but less serious and less violent offenses than the general prison population. Thus, offenders who participate in work release have shorter sentences and spend less time in prison than the general population.” The work release population was also “slightly older than the general prison population” and was largely African-American and female.

WSIPP defined recidivism as any offense committed after release which results in a Washington state conviction. Three types of recidivism were reported: violent felony convictions; felony convictions, including violent felonies; and total recidivism, including misdemeanors, felonies, and violent felonies.

With respect to “total recidivism,” within 3 years of release, 58 percent of work release offenders were convicted of new offenses, compared to 61 percent of non-work-release offenders. The study found this to be “a statistically significant difference.” Focusing on felony recidivism, WSIPP found that 45 percent of work release offenders were convicted of a new felony within 3 years, compared to 47 percent of non-work-release offenders. Finally, the study found “no difference between the two groups” with respect to violent felony recidivism.” In summary, work release lowers recidivism rates for total reconvictions, has a marginal effect on felonies, and has no effect on violent felonies,” according to the report.

Researchers also analyzed whether the benefits of work release outweigh the costs. Relying upon 2007 WDOC data, WSIPP determined “that the average total cost for an offender to participate in Washington’s work release is $43,071 compared with $42,456 to not participate.” Researchers found “based upon the felony recidivism findings” that “participation in work release generates $3.82 of benefits per dollar of cost. The benefits (about $2,300 per work release participant) stem from the future benefits of taxpayers and crime victims from the reduced recidivism.”

Source: “Does Participation in Washington’s Work Release Facilities Reduce Recidivism?” Washington State Institute for Public Policy (November 2007)(`

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