Using Education to Stop the Prison Revolving Door

By Lois Davis / AL.com  Image courtesy blog.al.com

According to the Department of Justice, in 2012, Alabama had the third highest imprisonment rate in the United States, trailing only Louisiana and Mississippi. A fierce debate has erupted over what to do to reduce overcrowding in Alabama prisons at a time when the state's budget is tighter than ever. The possibility of federal take over has been discussed.

Across the United States 700,000 individuals leave state and federal prisons every year. Within three years about 40 percent of them are back behind bars, imposing a crushing burden on already strained correctional system budgets. According to a recent National Academy of Sciences report, state spending on corrections is the third highest category of general fund expenditures in most states today, ranked only behind Medicaid and education. 

As a result of the 2008 economic recession there are fewer opportunities today for prisoners to participate in effective rehabilitation programs. But what if there were a way to reduce recidivism at a fraction of the cost of incarceration? Well, there is.

Providing education and vocational training to inmates is a cost effective way to reduce recidivism rates and thus shrink prison populations and ease the strain on prison budgets. Education is far less expensive than incarceration. Our study at RAND found that every dollar spent on correctional education programs saves taxpayers, on average, five dollars. And this is a conservative estimate that counts only direct costs. It does not take into account collateral savings like reducing the strain on the criminal justice system and financial and emotion costs borne by crime victims.

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