Academic journal article Journal of Employment Counseling

Preparing Ex-Offenders for Work: Applying the Self-Determination Theory to Social Cognitive Career Counseling

Academic journal article Journal of Employment Counseling

Preparing Ex-Offenders for Work: Applying the Self-Determination Theory to Social Cognitive Career Counseling

Article excerpt

Ex-offenders, persons with criminal and limited job histories, are being released into communities every year. Social cognitive career theory (SCCT) focuses on several cognitive-person variables and on the interaction effect with the environment. Conceptually, the author views the integration of SCCT and the self-determination theory as a promising model for engaging ex-offenders in behavior change and job counseling. A fictional case study is presented that applies the integrated theory model.


It is estimated that about 725,000 people are released annually from prisons in the United States (Butch, 2010), and career interventions are needed to address the special needs of this population. Employment that is satisfying is related to both mental and physical health, because unemployment is linked to poor health (Fouad & Bynner, 2008). Research has also shown a relationship between an individual's status in the workforce and the likelihood that the person will commit a crime (Lynch & Sabol, 2001). A study conducted by Freeman and Rodgers (1999), which controlled for various factors such as the increase in incarceration rates, found that the decline in unemployment explained about 30% of the decrease in crime rates from 1992 to 1997 (Bernstein, Mishel, & Houston, 2000). Having a job is essential in keeping communities safe and preventing the cycle of reconviction. In this article, I present a conceptual model of job counseling with ex-offenders, addressing the barriers ex-offenders face in seeking employment, the transition from prisoner to employee, and the integration of social cognitive career theory (SCCT) and self-determination theory (SDT); in addition, I present a fictional case study that applies the integrated model.


Incarceration leads to a disruption of informal social bonds to family, community, and work (Kurlychek & Kempinen, 2006). When people are incarcerated, they often lose their jobs and upon release find it difficult to find employment because of the criminal conviction and civil disenfranchisement (Kurlychek & Kempinen, 2006). Moreover, preprison employment experiences and education levels of ex-offenders are low relative to the nonincarcerated population (Lynch & Sabol, 2001). With many people seeking employment opportunities in this economy, having a prison record can serve as a significant barrier. The terms under which a prisoner is released, either conditional or unconditional, cause more stress. Conditional release invokes community corrections supervision, which is ordered by a court and usually is managed by a probation or parole officer. It can include mandatory curfews; drug testing; and the requirement to search for, obtain, and keep a job (Shivy et al., 2007). With the added stress of mandatory employment, the job exploration process for ex-offenders is sometimes thwarted.

Societal barriers like stigma can severely hinder ex-offenders' ability to secure and maintain employment. Different iterations of stigma throughout society affect ex-offenders in different ways, leading to issues such as recidivism, depression, and civil disenfranchisement. State- and federal-level stigma systematically limits opportunities for ex-offenders (Pager, 2003). Limited opportunities for people with marks on their criminal records are exacerbated by social stigma, which views ex-offenders as having character flaws (Bushway, 2004). Societal stigma maintains the justification of disparate forms of treatment for certain groups in society (Phelan, Link, & Dovidio, 2008). Therefore, it is not unlikely for individuals to be denied a job because of ex-offender status, regardless of the crime they committed, or for ex-offenders to be offered the lowest paying job, regardless of their skill or training level.

Self-imposed stigma can be equally detrimental, leading to self-deprecation, internalization of stigma, and low self-esteem (Markowitz, 2001; Wright, Gronfein, & Owens, 2000). …

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