Wyoming’s Impressive Recidivism Rate At Risk From Funding Cuts

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy doc.state.wy.us-

The Wyoming Department of Corrections is proud to have the second lowest recidivism rate in the nation, 38% below the national average.  Three out of four offenders released from Wyoming’s prisons stay out.  Department of Corrections officials believe their prison education programs are, to a large extent, responsible for their success.

Prison population grows despite low crime rates.

Wyoming’s lawless Wild West days are firmly in the past.  The state’s crime rates are well below national averages.  Violent crimes are 43% below national rates, and property crimes 22% lower.  Burglaries are just half the national average, and robberies a tenth.

As a consequence, the state’s prison population is small at about 2,200.  Yet, despite the low crime and impressive re-incarceration rates for released offenders, the prison population has grown by almost a third since 2000.  In fact over the decade to 2010, the rate by which Wyoming’s prison population increased was double that for the rest of the country.  It now appears to have leveled off.

Funding cuts threaten rehabilitation.

As has happened across the country, funding for public services, including prisons, has been cut.  Betty Abbott, Education Programs Manager for the Department of Corrections recognizes that education and programming usually bear the brunt of such cuts.  Despite now being underfunded, she must do the best with what is available.

Fortunately, Wyoming’s prison population is better educated than most.  While nationally about 40% of state prisoners have neither a high school diploma nor a GED, the majority of Wyoming’s prisoners do have one or the other.  Those who do not must take mandatory GED classes.  About 20% of current Wyoming inmates obtained their GED while in prison.

Earning a GED while inside is certainly worth the effort.  Over many decades, studies have consistently shown that obtaining a GED in prison is associated with a lowered risk of returning to prison.  The RAND Corporation’s highly influential meta-analysis of over fifty prior studies, published in 2013, suggests that the reduction is around 30%.

The benefits of earning a GED don’t end there though.  Studies have also shown that post-incarceration employment rates can be up to 50% higher, and wages increase too.

For those inmates who already have their high school diploma or GED, more advanced educational opportunities are available.  Eastern Wyoming College, for example, offers prisoners an advanced computer applications course, complete with college credits.

The same RAND meta-analysis demonstrated that on average, participation in college education while in prison reduced an inmate’s likelihood of returning to prison by 51%.

Education is the most cost-effective crime prevention tool.

It is regrettable that Ms. Abbott, and her peers across the country, must manage the education of our prisoners with dwindling resources.  As the RAND Corporation observed, crime prevention is more cost-effective than building prisons.  And of all crime prevention methods, education is the most cost-effective.  So cost-effective, in fact, that on average, a dollar spent on correctional education brings around five dollars in direct savings from avoided incarceration costs, as fewer released offenders return to prison.  Add in the avoided losses to new victims of crime, contributions to the economy from the increased productivity and consumer spending of successfully re-integrated ex-offenders, not to mention the taxes they pay, and that savings can easily be tripled.

Education cuts: and expensive folly.

With its impressively low re-incarceration rate, Wyoming’s prison and probation systems are clearly doing better than most.  In scrambling for savings, however, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that money spent on prison education is a fantastic investment.  Short term savings from cutting prison education programs now will likely turn out to be an expensive folly in the long term.  It is to be hoped that Wyoming can stay at the top of the recidivism league table, and lead the way for other states to follow.