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Report: Cuts to Prison Education May Lead to Higher Prison Costs

Every year, more than 2 million adults are released from prisons and jails in the United States. Of those, some 40 percent find themselves incarcerated within three years of their release. But prison education programs can curb the three-year rate of recidivism by as much as 13 full percentage points. Unfortunately, according to a new report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice, those education programs saw some drastic cuts in the four years immediately following the start of the recession, especially in states with higher prison populations.

Worth Noting
The total adult population within correctional systems in the United States was 6.94 million as of year-end 2012, with about 2.2 million actually serving time within prison or jail walls, the rest either on parole or supervised within their communities, according to the DOJ's Bureau of Justice Statistics. In terms of federal and state prisons exclusively, the inmate population was 1.57 million in 2012, with 609,800 admissions and 637,400 releases, according to the DOJ.

Effectiveness of Education Programs: Recidivism and Savings
Between 2009 and 2012, states cut funding for prison education programs by 6 percent on average, with medium-sizes states leading in cutbacks — at an average of 20 percent — and large states cutting by 10 percent on average.

Those cuts were apparently part of states' efforts to rein in short-term spending. The trouble, according to the report, is that such cutbacks can lead to increases in overall prison spending owing to increased rates of recidivism.

The study, "How Effective Is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go from Here?" — conducted by the nonprofit RAND Corp. on behalf of the DOJ — found that prisons now have fewer teachers, students and courses than prior to the recession and that academic education (more so than vocational training) has been particularly hard hit.

"There has been a dramatic contraction of the prison education system, particularly those programs focused on academic instruction versus vocational training," said Lois Davis, the study's lead author and a senior policy researcher at RAND, in a statement released to coincide with the report. "There are now fewer teachers, fewer course offerings and fewer students enrolled in academic education programs."

Further, according to the study, every $1 spent on prison education programs has led to $5 in savings on average in the three-year period following prisoner release.

"We need to weigh the short-term need to reduce budgets with the long-term consequence of trimming programs that help keep people from returning to prison after they have paid their debt to society," according to Davis.

The report incorporates a previous meta-analysis that found "inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who did not."

More Trouble Looming
The study also indicated another looming threat to prison education: Starting this year, it will be more difficult for inmates to earn their GEDs. The 2014 GED program will be aligned with Common Core State Standards, and the exams will be computer-based.

According to the report: "These two changes have important implications for correctional administrators and educators in terms of preparing for and implementing the new test. Educators will need to be prepared to teach the CCSS and prepare students for a more rigorous GED test that will require students to demonstrate high-level thinking skills and exhibit deeper levels of knowledge in four subject areas. In addition, the new test delivery model will require educators to prepare students to have a level of computer literacy and skills necessary to successfully navigate the test using a computer. These changes, in turn, have implications when it comes to agency budgets and professional development needs of educators and present a number of logistical concerns when it comes to preparing to implement computer-based testing."

Thirty-one states currently have plans to implement the more difficult GED exams. Of those, 52 percent indicated, through a survey of their correctional education directors, that the exams would have a negative impact on completion rates, and 68 percent said they expected to see a drop in participation in GED programs. Forty-two percent indicated that more time would be needed to prepare for the exams; and 45 percent indicated that they expected fewer inmates to be prepared for the exam.

Other areas of concern cited in the report included:

  • Costs of preparing for computer-based testing (with 76 percent of responding states indicated this as a concern);
  • Preparedness of instructors to teach new GED components (66 percent);
  • Preparedness of teachers to deliver computer-based exams (48 percent);
  • Limited access to computers (41 percent);
  • Cost to the students (34 percent); and
  • Security (24 percent).

Only two states — both of them small states — indicated they had no concerns about the 2014 GED exams.

The report's authors wrote that that question is no longer whether or not prison education programs are effective in curbing recidivism and saving costs. The question now is how to make these programs more effective. To that end, the authors recommended:

  • Improving the quality of the evidence base, including determining the most effective "dosage" of education for curbing recidivism and the most effective models (such as face-to-face or computer-driven);
  • Fund evaluations of current practices and the impact of the impending 2014 GED;
  • Evaluate the impact of technology in the correctional education setting; and
  • Assess the skills that inmates will need upon release in light of changes in the workforce.

"We know prison education works, but we don't know which instructional models provide the best results or how much instruction and training inmates need to be successful," said Robert Bozick, a report co-author and a social scientist at RAND, also in a prepared statement. "Answering these questions will help correctional leaders to direct limited resources in a way that provides the most benefits."

The complete 174-page report is freely available on RAND Corp.'s site.

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at .