Criminal Justice

Prison Programming with Education Focus Reduces Recidivism

When President Obama announced Pell Grants would once again be available to incarcerated individuals after nearly two decades of ineligibility, a firestorm ensued over the merits of this policy. Whether it is fair to bestow financial resources to prisoners so they may obtain a college degree when law-abiding Americans are struggling to pay for their own education is a difficult question. However, evidence suggests it is a worthwhile investment.

According to a 2013 RAND Corporation study, which evaluated the effectiveness of a college degree in reducing recidivism among prisoners, it emerged that education was one of the most transformative tools available. The study demonstrated recidivism was reduced by 43 percent for those who engaged with an educational program, and the odds of participants finding employment post-release increased by 13 percent. Providing a college education to prisoners also makes financial sense. According to Lois Davis with RAND, “for every dollar invested in a prison education program it will ultimately save taxpayers between $4 and $5 in reincarceration costs.” The relative price of educating prisoners is negligible in relation to the annual cost of incarceration. This study may help explain why many preeminent American colleges and universities are eagerly creating collaborative programs to assist with prisoner education, including Bard College, Boston University, Cornell University, Wesleyan University and St. Louis University.

ALEC supports efforts to reduce recidivism through evidence-based programming for nonviolent, low-risk offenders and has a resolution in support of The Second Chance Act. This Act authorizes federal grants to government agencies and nonprofit organizations that provide assistance to individuals for the purpose of improving recidivism rates. Obtaining higher education is one approach that has proven quite successful, as education levels are known to affect nearly every aspect of the quality of one’s life, from physical and mental health to professional opportunities. Some other approaches include teaching yoga and meditation, or bringing theater and acting to inmates. There is not one correct way to go about rehabilitative programs in prisons, but studies have shown they are most successful when holistic in nature.

Providing higher education to prisoners is not a new idea, as The Associated Press recently reported, but it seems to be experiencing a resurgence as states have been tasked with developing innovative solutions to reduce the prison population. While other components of the criminal justice system are also in need of reform, reentry and rehabilitative programs must be a priority. According to the Acting Secretary of Education, John King, Jr.:

We need sentencing reform, but sentencing reform without systemic reform will be inadequate. In the absence of education opportunities in the corrections system, the sentences may be shorter, but folks will be right back [in prison] if we don’t bring a path to opportunity.

This is an important realization. It is unreasonable to expect people to idly sit in a cell for years and possess the ability to create a life for themselves once released, and nearly 95 percent of all prisoners will be released at some point. It has proven ineffective and costly to do nothing. Hardworking taxpayers should expect more innovation in how dollars are spent rehabilitating nonviolent, low-risk offenders seeking a second chance.


In Depth: Criminal Justice

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