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Improving Employment and Reducing Recidivism among Prison Offenders via Virtual Reality Job-Interview Training

More than 600,000 state and federal ex-offenders re-enter the community annually after their release from prison and have a recidivism rate of approximately 50% within the first year of release. However, few evidence-based interventions exist to support re-entry for ex-offenders, which creates a critical gap in services. Thus, the development and evaluation of interventions focused on the mechanisms of reducing recidivism are a national priority. One potential mechanism of recidivism is employment as ex-offenders who are employed are less likely to reoffend and approximately 25% of ex-offenders are employed within 12 months of re-entry. Moreover, employment enables ex-offenders to pay their rent and utilities and network within the community. Employment also reduces the incentive to commit crimes for monetary gain. Moreover, by overcoming barriers to employment, research suggests that employed ex-offenders are less likely to engage in violent crimes. Thus, to fill this gap in services, our group seeks to evaluate a virtual reality job interview training (VR-JIT) tool delivered via computer. The VR-JIT development was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and included a curriculum around prior criminal justice involvement as well as the opportunity to repeatedly practice speaking about prior criminal justice involvement during the virtual interviews. The VR-JIT tool has since demonstrated efficacy (i.e., research lab delivery) across five randomized controlled trials at improving job interview skills and doubling employment rates among trainees with a history of mental illness, substance, abuse, and educational disabilities. The VR-JIT tool is currently being evaluated for effectiveness (delivery via vocational services and schools) with promising preliminary results. To date, VR-JIT has not yet been evaluated among ex-offenders and could be a critical innovation in this field. Thus, the overarching goal of this study is to conduct a Type I Hybrid randomized controlled trial to evaluate the effectiveness and preliminary implementation (i.e., process evaluation) of VR-JIT delivered to offenders completing their sentence (expected 2-3 months remaining) at an innovative skilled trades training program called the Vocational Villages. Thus, our aims are to 1) evaluate whether services-as-usual (SAU)+VR-JIT compared to SAU-only increases employment and reduces recidivism by 6-month follow-up; 2) Evaluate mechanisms of employment and explore the mechanisms of recidivism; and 3) Conduct a multilevel, mixed-method initial process evaluation of VR-JIT adoption and implementation to assess the acceptability, scalability, generalizability, and affordability of VR-JIT within criminal justice programming.

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