Through social enterprise, Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) reduces recidivism by offering work experience and life skills training to individuals recently released from prison.
Recidivism remains a major issue in the American criminal justice system. Nearly ⅔ of individuals return to prison within three years of their initial release. Formerly incarcerated individuals face major barriers to employment and often lack the skills and resources to maintain a livelihood, which works to precipitate their return to jail.
CEO was created in the late 1970s as a demonstration project of the Vera Institute of Justice. The project explored how providing specialized employment services to formerly incarcerated individuals and connecting them to the workforce could reduce recidivism. In 1996, CEO became an independent nonprofit organization and since then has made more than 25,000 job placements for returning citizens with businesses across the country.
A 2012 random control trial evaluation conducted by MDRC found that CEO’s program reduced convictions over 22 percent, and re-incarceration for a new crime fell by over 26 percent—outcomes MDRC not only deemed statistically significant but “rare” for rigorous studies of this kind.
The CEO model takes individuals who have recently returned from prison (typically during the first three months of their release) and hires them as employees. This provides them with immediate income and a real world work environment. After a one week life skills orientation, CEO employees typically work 3-4 days a week in crew-based teams providing maintenance and labor services. CEO participants also receive job coaching and assessments one day a week to prepare them for transition to the mainstream workforce. CEO then provides assistance placing participants in unsubsidized employment, and continued support and incentives to help participants retain their employment.
CEO’s social enterprise model allows them to scale their impact across the country. Starting in 2009, CEO expanded into Upstate New York and then later into California, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. In each location, CEO partners with government agencies via service contracts to operate CEO social enterprise crews and provide participants with formal, on the job and soft skills training. Over the next five years, CEO intends to expand into several more states and increase the number of people they serve from 4,600 annually to more than 10,000 annually.
One way CEO has been able to scale so rapidly is through Pay for Success (PFS). In December 2013, CEO, New York State and the intermediary Social Finance began one of the first PFS projects in the country, a four-year PFS project that enables CEO to serve an additional 2,000 high-risk, recently released men in New York City and Rochester. Forty-four private investors provided $13.5 million in capital to support this expansion of services. If a random assignment evaluation shows that individuals in the treatment group spend at least 8 percent fewer days in jail or prison than the control group, and shows a 5 percent increase in their immediate and long-term employment, USDOL and the State of New York will return investors their upfront capital. If CEO exceeds these measures, returns can reach as high as 12.5 percent. If targets are not met, investors stand to lose their capital. This pay for success project has not only provided CEO with resources to serve more people, it has also helped CEO target its program to clients who will benefit the most from CEO’s intervention, and strengthen its partnership with government.
CEO’s success has helped the organization build awareness among policy makers about the importance of re-entry issues relevant to formerly incarcerated individuals. Staff partner with other organizations on initiatives such as the “Ban the Box” campaign that seeks to eliminate the questions regarding past convictions on job applications. CEO also focuses on improving federal and state policies such as SNAP ET and the national workforce system as well as working with the federal and state government to support workforce development systems across the country that seek to engage formerly incarcerated individuals.
CEO’s decades-long history has given it a proven model to employ and support individuals returning from incarceration. Through its social enterprise, social impact bonds and advocacy work, CEO is working to continue to expand its impact across the U.S., reducing recidivism through employment.