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What does a stint in jail mean for getting a job?

What does a stint in jail mean for getting a job?

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

A new study compares employment of previous inmates in four Nordic countries up until five years after their release. The aim has been to see whether former inmates in certain countries are more successful in finding work, and whether this is a result of the work of the correctional services or labour market measures.

The results have been published in the British Journal of Criminology and is breaking new ground. So far, researchers looking at the links between unemployment and crime have focused on whether the first leads to the latter – i.e. whether higher unemployment leads to higher levels of crime. The opposite question, whether crime makes it harder to find jobs when you leave prison, has been far less studied.

The answer might seem self evident. Former inmates are not the most attractive people in the labour market. But it is not self evident. A prison term could also mean that people change, get help with drug dependency or are picked up by networks outside of the prison.

This is why the researchers have studied the employment level five years before the incarceration as well as five years after the end of the prison term. The researchers limited their scope to include first time offenders in order to get the most similar possible research groups in the respective countries. They collected information on all first time inmates in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. 

The numbers from Finland could be seen as confirmation of the fact that people struggle to find jobs after being released. This was the case particularly for those aged 25 or more. If half of this group had jobs before incarceration, only 40 percent had found work five years after serving their sentence.

In Norway the picture is different. The number of people who had jobs before committing their first crime was higher than in Finland for the same age groups. 60 to 70 percent of Norwegian first time offenders had jobs before ending up in prison. They also kept that rate up after being released. The prison term had no clear negative effect. 

The results should be interpreted with a level of care, since there are still differences between the countries in terms of which groups of people end up in prison, sentencing lengths and the labour market people are released back into.

“The most striking difference between the countries is the five-year mortality rate after first imprisonment. The rate is 2.2 per cent in Denmark, 3.8 per cent in Norway and as high as 9.1 per cent in Finland,” point out the researchers.

“Although we cannot rule out the possibility that incarceration itself affected these figures, this suggests that the Finnish inmates are more marginalised and have poorer health than their counterparts in other Nordic countries,” they write.

Finland also has the highest degree of recidivism at 44.1 percent, compared to 37.1 percent in Sweden. Both Denmark and Norway have substantially lower recidivism rates at 22.7 and 23.1 percent.

"If differences in recidivism rates between the Nordic countries provide any clues of employment after release, we should expect better outcomes among Norwegian and Danish prisoners compared with Finnish and Swedish prisoners", the researchers write.

Prison terms are generally longer in Finland, and the country has a more strained labour market – both factors which must be taken into consideration before pointing to any one country as being the most successful. The grid below shows the prison term, unemployment as a variant and the number of former inmates earning at least 50 percent of their country’s average wage. 

Denmark FinlandNorwaySweden
Number 4364 1643 7124 1626


30.7 32.9 33.5 23.6
Sentence (months) 2.5 4.9 1.8 2.6
Death 5 years after 2.2% 9.1% 3.8% 2.0%
Recidivism 5 years after 22.7% 44.1% 23.1% 37.1%

 Age is medium age at first imprisonment. Death and recidivism is measured five years after release.

The age groups in the survey were those who were sentenced to prison for the first time in 2004 and 2005. 

This many prisoners had some kind of income in the five years after being released from prison: First the younger age group (20 to 24 at time of imprisonment):

Source: BJC

And this is what it looked like for the slightly older group (25-30):

Source: BJC

Oslo prison

Is Norway’s largest prison with 400 inmates and 370 staff. People spending time here are either under arrest or serving shorter sentences. The prison lies next to the Oslo Police Headquarters in Grønland, Oslo. The oldest wing was built in 1851.


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