The State of Washington is planning to change how it has delivered education to its incarcerated; the state now plans to allow the Department of Corrections to spend money on college-level education in its prisons.
College education for prison inmates has always been a hard sell to the American public. Back in the tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s, with crime rates and victimization soaring, the American people had enough. They — and, in particular, their representatives in D.C. and their state capitols — engaged in a campaign to cut any perceived amenities for prison inmates and to lock up as many wrongdoers as possible and throw away the key. It felt good to crime victims to see these wrongdoers punished and it felt like social progress to the lawmakers who enacted the supporting legislation.
Fast forward twenty to thirty years and the situation has changed drastically. Crime rates are down; in some cases, at historically low levels. The murder rate in Washington State alone is at levels akin to those of the 1970s. Regardless of this, the United States now incarcerates over 2 million prison inmates, and has several million more on probation, parole, or under other forms of community correctional control. While the U.S. holds around 5 percent of the world’s population, it incarcerates around 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Something is clearly wrong with our crime control policies.
Now that crimes rates are falling, the American people are coming to realize that the tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s are behind us, and that we are now in the smart-on-crime 2010s. This ideal, in conjunction with the realization that we as a nation now spend $50 to $62 billion annually on corrections ($6.9 billion alone goes to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, only $109 million of that goes to drug treatment), has led many concerned citizens to reevaluate our crime control policies and options. This reevaluation has shown a clear crime reduction winner: correctional education; in particular, college education in American prisons.
Education in prison has proven time and time again to slash recidivism rates, improve post-release employment rates, help keep families together, and so much more, and all of this at a fraction of the cost of incarceration. In 2013, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy published a study stating that for every $1 spent on postsecondary correctional education (college in prison), a cost-benefit of $19.62 is realized. Likewise, the RAND Corp. in conjunction with the Correctional Education Association also published a study last year which reported that participants in correctional education programming had a 43 percent reduction in recidivism rates over nonparticipants. Correctional education both saves us money and significantly reduces recidivism rates in the process.
And now we come to Washington’s House Bill 2486. Sponsored by state Representative Eric Pettigrew, Democrat from Seattle, this bill would reverse Washington’s ban on postsecondary correctional education programs — college courses — in Washington State prisons. The bill, if approved by the Washington State legislature, would allow the Department of Corrections to expand its existing $16 million prison education fund to offer college programming for state prison inmates. The bill will not increase any funding for the Department of Corrections or its budget for prison education programming, but would allow it to use some of the existing funds for college-level programming. As planned, the DOC would use these college education programs in a limited manner as an incentive for good inmate behavior.
Regardless of where you reside on the spectrum of opinion about educating criminals, House Bill 2486 is a good idea. It doesn’t cost the Washington taxpayers any money, it doesn’t require the DOC to actually do anything, but it does allow prison administrators to use the remarkably successful tool of postsecondary correctional education when good opportunities for it arise. And as this tool is employed, recidivism will be slashed, taxpayer monies will be saved, victimization will be reduced, and lives will be improved. This is something we can all get behind. Support House Bill 2486 not because you support college in prison initiatives, but because you care about the health and safety of your communities.