With the United States’ criminal justice system facing extraordinary challenges, including crowded jails, busy courtrooms, state budget pressures and high recidivism rates, criticism continues to mount. However, few solutions seem to gain traction.
Prisons are seen today as a place of retribution for crimes committed, instead of an opportunity to rehabilitate prisoners and prepare them for productive lives outside of a jail cell. If the criminal justice system were to focus on rehabilitation by educating prisoners, society as a whole would benefit immensely.
Most people who enter the criminal justice system come from a troubled background with little to no family or community support. By locking these prisoners up with very few productive tasks, having them form mutual bonds with other prisoners based on frustration and anger and then releasing them into a world in which they have few positive role models and no practical job skills, the system practically seems designed to encourage recidivism.
Offering prisoners educational opportunities redesigns this system by giving prisoners a path out of the recidivism cycle. Education within prison can range from traditional classroom formats—such as having prisoners work toward a high school equivalency degree (GED)—to technical skills that require training and even certification. Having a GED can help a former prisoner land a higher paying and more rewarding job, or lead to further educational opportunities. Likewise, technical skills are marketable and lead to well-paying careers.
Individuals who are released without employable skills are likely to depend on social welfare programs or commit crimes and reenter the criminal justice system in the years to come. Creating a pathway to a future job will ease the pressure on social programs and make the former prisoner less likely to commit a crime. This will further reduce our reliance on court systems, jails and state budgets to deal with criminals.
Further, educational opportunities form a qualitative shift among prisoners who will actually have a future beyond prison. Connections made in jail should be based on classroom camaraderie rather than mutual anger toward society. These connections serve as systems of support within jail, while providing much-needed networks once released.
The stigma toward former prisoners will also be reduced if employers understand the education opportunities these individuals have been given, resulting in lower unemployment rates among released prisoners and new confidence instilled in individuals knowing they will be able to find meaningful employment.
Obviously, not all prisoners will be susceptible to educational opportunities, but there are millions of incarcerated individuals across the United States who would be. Beating the challenges facing the criminal justice system cannot happen overnight, but the road to recovery begins with shifting toward a rehabilitative paradigm through education—not just retribution.