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February 21, 2019

Making a robust case for "Sending Our Prisoners to College"

Over at The American Conservative, Nila Bala and Emily Mooney have this lengthy new commentary titled "Sending Our Prisoners to College: Just think of it as an up-front investment, one that will pay dividends down the road." I highly recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

At the heart of conservative thinking are the tenets of individual dignity, public safety, family values, and fiscal prudence.  Yet far too often, society fails to apply these principles to the criminal justice system.  As a result, our current correctional system is failing all of us. It is clear that something must change.

Generally speaking, our correctional facilities do too little to prepare prisoners for their lives beyond prison walls.  Not surprisingly, recidivism rates are disturbingly high.  An estimate from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that almost three fifths of those released from prison will be convicted of a new offense within five years of their release....

No one should be shocked by these results; prisons are dehumanizing places that do not produce favorable outcomes for incarcerated individuals, families, or communities. If we want prisoners to treat others with human dignity when they re-enter society, we must practice these principles in our treatment of them....

We have a choice to make: we can let incarcerated individuals sit behind bars — isolated and idle — or we can take steps to provide education to incarcerated individuals who, as a result, will be more employable, stable members of our society when they are released.

The idea of educating incarcerated individuals has been met with strong opposition from those who question why Americans should be taxed so that those behind bars — who have done something wrong — receive a benefit.  This sentiment led to the elimination of Pell Grants for prisoners in 1994.  Pell Grants exist to provide all students with financial need with aid for college.  Without financial support from these grants, the number of postsecondary prison programs plummeted from 772 programs to just 8 within three years.

By the late 2000s, individuals on both sides of the aisle began to recognize that prison systems were not stopping the continuing tide of crime.  A more effective solution was needed to address the growing prison population.  Finally, in summer 2015, the U.S. Department of Education announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program as part of the Experimental Sites Initiative.  This program allowed some colleges to apply to pilot the use of Pell Grants to increase access to postsecondary education in correctional facilities, with the federal government evaluating the academic and life outcomes of those who received postsecondary education.

We are now over two years into the experiment.  It is still too early to assess the initiative’s impact on recidivism rates.  However, removing barriers has increased enrollment: from fall 2016 to fall 2017, enrollment at Second Chance Pell experimental sites increased by 236 percent.  As of fall 2017, over 954 postsecondary credentials have been awarded, giving incarcerated individuals a better chance of obtaining employment through career technical certificates as well as two- and four-year degree programs.  Both the Trump administration and many leaders in the Republican Party have expressed interest in the program.

Given these promising signs, policymakers should consider expanding postsecondary education programming to prisoners nationwide.  Such programming brings gains for both prisoners and public safety, rebuilds families, is fiscally prudent, and acknowledges the individual dignity of those in prison....

Education has a transformative effect on incarcerated individuals and how they view themselves.  It affords individuals a glimpse at a new world of opportunities that they may not have been exposed to prior to incarceration.  In the classroom, prisoners are seen as individuals worthy of investment; their teachers and coursework engender a sense that they have something to offer to society.  Postsecondary courses take otherwise dead time and use it to engage prisoners in productive activity....

Practically speaking, postsecondary courses give incarcerated individuals something to do and help corrections personnel create a structured routine for participants.  These factors reduce the chance that prisoners will fill their time with less productive (and potentially criminal) activities.  Ultimately, postsecondary education can make the difficult job of corrections both easier and safer — for staff as well as those behind bars.

The transformative effects of postsecondary education do not stop behind prison walls; they also bring meaningful benefits to public safety.  A recent study found that earning a postsecondary degree while incarcerated may reduce an individual’s chances of re-arrest by 14 percent and their chances of a return to prison due to a new offense by 24 percent.  Though selection bias may come into play (i.e., students who choose to enroll in education programs may have characteristics that also make them less likely to re-offend), research has continued to identify such programming as a cost-effective model for increasing public safety....

Many people, and especially conservatives, have an instinctual bias against paying for prisoners’ education.  Yet the reality is we already pay a high cost — fiscal, social, and personal — because we do not educate most prisoners.  Indeed, the cost of an education is insignificant when compared to the costs our society suffers from criminal activity. Postsecondary education may require an upfront investment, but it’s one that will reduce the fiscal burden of government in the long run.

Our correctional system is in crisis.  Ten thousand individuals are released from prison every week, many of whom are wholly unprepared for the world they will enter. Our public safety, families, and economy are undermined when released individuals resort to crime.  We have tried building more prisons, increasing sentences, and making confinement more punitive.  But time and again, this “tough on crime” approach has not worked.  Instead, it has proven not only a fiscally wasteful policy that threatens public safety and family cohesion, but an affront to basic human dignity.

Supporting prison education does not mean being “soft on crime.”  Rather, it is one of the clearest, cheapest, and most effective methods to get control over crime and make our correctional facilities safer.  It paves the way for new family legacies based on education, productive labor, and prosperity, creating positive generational effects for years to come.

Conservatives should lead the way on repairing our broken criminal justice system.  Study after study has identified the provision of postsecondary education in prisons as a promising approach to preventing crime and to facilitating future economic opportunity.  The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program has created an opportunity to provide much-needed educational programs to incarcerated individuals. And, by expanding access to prison education programs, we can move toward an approach that embraces redemption, compassion, and second chances — and benefits society as a whole.

February 21, 2019 at 01:09 PM | Permalink

Comments

I would prefer Tech school, lots shorter, get a job in your area quickly. Advancement is also faster in most companies...

But your point is well taken, get these guys some education, will change their thinking and make them more marketable..

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Feb 21, 2019 5:18:03 PM

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In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB