A meta-analysis of current research by the RAND Corporation confirms that improving access to education for prisoners could cut crime recidivism rates after release. And the difference is substantial. According to RAND, prisoners who participated in education programs while behind bars were 43% less likely to reoffend than those who did not.
According to Mike Riggs of The Atlantic Cities, RAND's findings leave the state and federal governments facing some very tough choices. On the one hand, cutting down on the number of people who go back to committing crimes after release would provide substantial savings both in law enforcement and costs of keeping people locked up. However, costs of prison education programs are also high, and not something that many states – many of whom are operating on tight budgets – can either afford or easily sell to constituents.
With so little investment in experimentation, the ideal correctional education program is something of a mystery. That's why the Vera Institute of Justice last year launched its Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project. Over the next five years, Pathways is providing funding for prisoners to enroll in either two- and four-year degree programs two years before their release date, and for the four-year programs, continues to fund their education for two years after release. The idea, says Pathways Director Fred Patrick, is that prisoners can re-enter society prepared to work in growth fields like information technology, or continue toward a four-year degree by transferring their credits to participating four-year institutions.
Currently, the Pathways program is limited to 21 prisons and 17 colleges located throughout New Jersey, North Carolina and Michigan. Even though organizers are looking to expand, the barriers to that expansion are not trivial. Not only would colleges and universities need to be willing to participate – far from a given – the program also requires input from local businesses.
And that is even before we get to the challenges of funding. It's hard to imagine that the federal government, tied up in budget battles that lead to sequestration, would be willing to fund anything of the sort.
Which is why Patrick is quick to point out that spending more on prison education means spending less money elsewhere. Not only are criminal justice costs reduced, but "you're keeping people off public assistance by letting someone come home and make a living wage. You're keeping people off Medicaid. You're inspiring these people to care about things that other people care about."
Patrick can even imagine the Pathways project as a way to "restore vibrancy" to high-crime neighborhoods. "In almost every state you can track the neighborhoods that the vast majority of people in prison come from," he says. Allowing offenders to return to those neighborhoods with jobs and an education is "an investment in a safer community."