Innovative Education Can Help Fight Crime in Latin America

By Gabriel Zinny and Diego Gorgal

Latin America is among the most violent regions of the world. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which each year releases its annual report on violence and the drug trade, has the bad news: with just 8 percent of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for over 30 percent of global violent deaths. The region’s homicide rate—28 murders per 100,000 inhabitants—contrasts with 18 per 100,000 in all of Africa.

Apart from the human tragedies that make up such statistics, high levels of violence create a major barrier to economic development. Insecurity hobbles the creation of social and human capital, weakening efforts to improve education and health, while also threatening much-needed investment. U.N. figures show that the cumulative impact of violence worldwide is as much as 11 percent of global GDP; in Latin America, homicide alone is estimated to shave off over 4 percent of GDP.

Latin America’s imprisoned population is at the center of this crisis. The World Prison Population List, a project of the International Centre for Prison Studies, tracks incarceration around the world. Its most recent report finds that out of the world’s 10 million prisoners, 1.3 million belong to Latin America—a rate of 229 inmates per 100,000 people, far higher than the world average of 144. And over the past two decades, the Latin America’s incarceration rates have ballooned by 120 percent as the drug wars have intensified.

The spike in the prison population has created a policy conundrum for nearly every country: how to improve the “employability” of inmates in order to allow them to reenter the labor force? This challenge, in turn, raises a number of questions about which programs are most effective in bringing inmates back to society, and what role formal and informal education programs can play.

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