Can Jobs Deter Crime?

A study finds that earning even a little more through legitimate work can lure people away from illicit activity.

Siegfried Modola / Reuters

What would it take to encourage criminals to change their ways? There is, of course, no one answer to that question, but when it comes to crimes with economic motives—such as  theft—a new study suggests that providing job training, money (or supplies) to get started in legitimate work, and employment opportunities could help curb repeat offenses.

The study, from Christopher Blattman of Columbia University and Jeannie Annan from the International Rescue Committee,  assesses the effectiveness of a program designed to rehabilitate former mercenaries in Liberia. While much about Liberian mercenaries may be particular to that country, some of the economic conditions that push its people toward crime, including a lack of skills, job opportunities, and stable government structures, certainly exist around the world.

Blattman and Annan studied a demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR) program for former soldiers who, after the end of Liberia’s civil wars, turned to theft, plundering gold, diamonds, rubber, and timber. In addition to these illegal activities, the former soldiers were also easy recruits for other violent campaigns, including nearby wars or as participants in paid voter-intimidation groups.

In an attempt to curb these behaviors, a nonprofit called Action on Armed Violence offered some of these men entrance to the DDR program, which would teach them agricultural skills, provide them with counseling and literacy classes, and give them $125 worth of supplies for agricultural work, such as farming or tending livestock. After 14 months, the researchers were able to survey more than 90 percent of the study’s 1,123 participants (half of whom attended training and classes, and received economic incentives as a part of DDR) and found that of those who went through the program—even the men most at risk for illegal activity and mercenary work—remained interested in their new jobs. Overall, participants’ involvement in criminal activity was reduced by about 20 percent, though none had completely abandoned their criminal activities by the end of the study.

After taking on some agricultural work, the men made marginally more than those who didn’t participate in the program. But a wage boost of as little as 40 cents a day was enough to entice the former soldiers to shift more time toward their new occupation and away from violence or other criminal activities. And the assurance that more earnings would arrive in the future was particularly effective in combatting illegal activity.

During the course of the program, the $125 worth of supplies was delayed for about one-third of the participants, and they were told that, instead, they would later be sent cash to help them with their businesses. These men then had to choose whether they would stay put and collect their promised payment, or leave to participate in illegal mining or violent activity elsewhere. Many chose to stay, which researchers say accounts for a significant part of the reduction in illegal and violent activity in the overall study.

As powerful as economic incentives may be, they aren’t enough on their own. Despite attempts to change the men’s socialization, political philosophies, and views on violence through counseling and other methods, the researchers say that the men involved in the program largely retained contact with their old mercenary and criminal networks. When another war sprung up in nearby Côte d’Ivoire over the course of the study, program participants were 25 percent less likely to report engaging in mercenary-recruitment activity.

Even though former criminals in more-developed economies may not be at risk of becoming soldiers for hire, Blattman and Annan’s study suggests that individuals who might engage in criminal and violent behavior again, such as gang members and  thieves, may be more willing than was once thought to turn down those opportunities in exchange for a marginal economic benefit and stable, legal employment.