To Stop Prisons' Revolving Door

By Lois Davis

If California is serious about reducing its prison population, one crucial component will have to be reducing recidivism. Currently, a lot of the state's inmates are men and women who've been in prison more than once. They get out, they have little training or education, they can't get jobs and, in many cases, they return to lives of crime and find themselves back behind bars.  Image courtesy martyrobertsblog.com

But a major new study of correctional education in U.S. state prisons suggests there are things California could do to slow that revolving door. Our research demonstrates that ex-offenders' futures may depend on what, if anything, they learn while behind bars.

Nationwide, state prison systems are struggling with budget constraints that require tough choices. Cutting rehabilitative services that provide correctional education and vocational training may seem like a tempting way to plug short-term budget gaps, but it actually ends up costing the system more over time — and squandering lives that could have been transformed.

Each year, more than 700,000 people are released from American prisons, but within three years of their release, four out of 10 of them end up back behind bars, guilty of committing new crimes or violating the terms of their release. If prisoners had more access to education and training while incarcerated, those numbers might change dramatically.

My Rand Corp. colleagues and I recently completed a national study examining all the evidence on the effect of correctional education on recidivism and employment. We found that inmates who participated in correctional education programs — remedial education to develop reading and math skills, GED preparation, postsecondary education or vocational training — were 43% less likely to return to prison within three years of release in comparison to those who did not participate. That's a 13-percentage-point reduction in the risk of reoffending.

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(First published by the Los Angeles Times)

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Author:  Lois Davis is a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. and the author of "Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults."