By Wayne T. Dowdy
In studies on prisoners, education, and recidivism, the results show a decrease in recidivism by those prisoners who received education while incarcerated. Based upon findings reported in ‘Education Reduces Crime, Three-State Recidivism Study,’ [Education, The Prisoner, and Recidivism, Stephen Steurer, Ph.D., Project Director, and Linda G. Smith, Ph.D., Research Consultant] (Feb. 2003), “The research reported here shows strong support for educating incarcerated offenders. All of the analyses described lead to several compelling conclusions.” For instance, a reduction in recidivism, and “higher wages that generally indicate that individuals are better able to support themselves and their families, and that they are engaged in jobs that hold promise of sustainability.”
As noted by the authors in their conclusion, “Focusing solely on recidivism would be inadequate, however, especially when there are many other meaningful outcomes such as family stability, workforce participation, and cost savings/benefits.” Society gains if a former prisoner becomes a productive member, instead of another crime statistic in the making. The would-be-recidivist becomes a taxpayer instead of a tax liability; many become supportive family members, community servants, skilled laborers, or business professionals helping to build their communities.
In another report, “Cuts in Prison Education Put Illinois at Risk,” written by Robert Manor, with assistance from John Maki, both from the John Howard Association of Illinois, “It costs anywhere from $17,000 to $64,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate, depending largely on the security level of the prison … Education sharply reduces the likelihood that someone will recidivate. A 1997 study published by the Illinois Department of Corrections found that postsecondary education cut recidivism by two-thirds, from 39 percent to 14 percent.” The 1997 Illinois recidivism rate is substantially less than the 1997 National average of 67.5% for the “Re-arrest” recidivism rate of those released in 1994 Bureau of Justice Statistics Reentry Trends in the U.S.: Recidivism, which said something positive for the State of Illinois before they stopped what was working.
Providing postsecondary education apparently made a difference. In the Federal Bureau of Prisons, only a few can afford college correspondence courses, since Congress restricted prisoners from receiving federal student aid – including the need-based Pell Grants – in 1994. Even though the Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR) offers an Inmate Scholarship Award program, which pays a portion of tuition fees, most prisoners cannot pay the difference and even more don’t even know about it or how to apply, so only a few can capitalize on the available benefit. (UNICOR inmate pay ranges from $30.00 to $180.00 per month: some slightly even more, but most around $100.00 or less) With federal prisoners in UNICOR earning more than state prisoners, that should give you an idea about the state of affairs in state prisons, and why recidivism rates are soaring. The federal government offers its prisoners a GED. Therefore, most prisoners leave prison armed with a GED to compete against those without a criminal history, packing postsecondary education degrees. The released prisoner’s criminal history alone presents a barrier to gainful employment in many situations, which often results in more victims, more recidivism, and more crime statistics. Providing prisoners with opportunities for postsecondary education reduces all three statistics.
In the article about Illinois being at risk, the authors wrote, “The more education an ex-offender has received in prison, the less likely he or she will again commit a crime.” Those studies remove doubt about the cost-effectiveness of educating prisoners, since it costs more to incarcerate than to educate. Therefore, there is no logical explanation for legislatures to vote to remove educational opportunities for the disadvantaged. The fear of a “Soft on Crime” label is the only explanation for such poor decisions by our Nation’s leaders. Recidivism has numerous associated costs: cost of law enforcement solving crimes, capturing and detaining criminals for judicial proceedings; judicial cost of jury trials or plea bargains; appellate processes, post-conviction relief efforts, and the cost of re-incarceration. A more cost-effective approach is for government to reduce recidivism by providing 1) educational opportunities, 2) substance abuse treatment, and 3) psychiatric care to those in need. Continuing to pay for the repeating costs of the recidivist is not financially responsible when other alternatives exist.
“More importantly, less recidivism means greater public safety. … No one can put a price on public safety, but crime prevention is the most important benefit of prison education programs.”