Prison Education and the Benefits to Taxpayers

By Christopher Zoukis

As prisons across the United States continue to experience overpopulation, there has been increasing concern among taxpayers regarding the ultimate costs of incarcerating so many individuals. Critics point to unsustainable incarceration numbers, huge costs and static crime rates as reasons why the criminal justice system needs to be seriously reformed.  Image courtesy prisonstudiesproject.org

A vocal minority of experts and media analysts, who see prison education as the best route to reform the system, is seeking to increase public awareness and challenge the status quo.

Critics of the criminal justice system can usually agree on several things: costs are way too high, too many people are crowded into jails and prisons, and far too many felons who are released end up committing crimes and reentering the criminal justice system. Developing ways to reform the system typically focus on one of these areas, such as lowering the overhead costs of running prisons, the privatization of prisons, changing laws to reduce the number of incarcerated persons or focusing on reduced rates of recidivism. Gaining public support for any of these initiatives can be difficult, however, as there are always concerns of both costs and the impact on public safety.

The challenges of reducing recidivism

Proponents of prison education have focused their attention on lowering recidivism rates. Doing so, they argue, will alleviate prison crowding and save taxpayers considerable amounts of money. To adequately reduce recidivism, however, the focus must be on why a majority of felons end up returning to jail.

The U.S. criminal justice system has a consistently high recidivism rate. Researchers have agreed that a number of factors stand out in determining whether or not an individual will return to jail or prison. The first is whether or not the felon has untreated mental health disorders. Another factor is whether a prisoner has a stable support system to rely on once outside of prison, such as family members or spouses who exhibit responsible and supportive behavior. Many individuals leave jail and have little or no stable support system. Either alone or placed into a dysfunctional situation, possibly with untreated mental health issues, many of these people fall into old habits of illegal activities.

Another key factor is if the prisoner will have lasting and reliable employment upon reentering society. Without a consistent income, a high-risk individual becomes more likely to commit crimes and end up back in the criminal justice system. Many of those in prison had no job or education prior to entering jail, and then are released with the same lack of credentials—this time with a criminal record to go along with it. The system appears to be effectively rigged against former prisoners who simply want to turn their lives around and become productive members of society. 

Criminal behavior impacts us all

All of this tells the story of why individuals exiting the criminal justice system tend to fall back into criminal behavior, but why should that matter to the average taxpaying American citizen?

According to PrisonEducation.com, if the recidivism rate were to be reduced by just 10 percent nationwide, it would save an astounding $62 billion per year. When an inmate leaves prison, it saves state taxpayers (on average) $25,000, a savings that is negated if the person returns to jail. This makes reducing recidivism clearly beneficial from a fiscal standpoint. So how can state governments effectively reduce recidivism, thereby reducing prison costs?

The answer could lie in providing prisoners with educational opportunities, giving individuals a roadmap for success once they reenter civil society. At a relatively low cost to taxpayers, educating prisoners gives incarcerated individuals the certifications and skills necessary to compete in the job market once they have been released. According to Forbes, recidivism rates are almost halved when former inmates find full-time employment. Further, studies have shown a 46 percent lower incarceration rate for those in prison education programs than those who are not.

These studies also have not taken into account the fact that ex-felons who have found meaningful employment will also become taxpayers, consumers and supporters of families themselves—contributions that have positive societal and economic benefits that cannot be measured in numbers.

Those who seek to reform the criminal justice system by educating prisoners believe in facts-driven solutions rather than endless criticism. Whether their platform will gain public acceptance has yet to be seen, but given a rising consciousness over where tax dollars end up, the timing may be on their side to see real change in how criminal justice is administered across the United States.