Report: Prison Education Programs Could Save Money

Inmates in education programs are less likely to return to prison and more likely to find a job.

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Prison inmates who receive general education or vocational training are far less likely to return to prison and significantly more likely to find employment after their release, according to a new report from a nonprofit global policy think tank.

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Researchers at the RAND Corporation found through an analysis of past studies, released on Thursday, that inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prison than those who do not. Additionally, if prisoners participated in academic or vocational education programs, their chances of employment after release were 13 percent higher than their peers.

"Our findings suggest that we no longer need to debate whether correctional education works," said lead researcher Lois Davis, in a statement.

Each year, about 700,000 people leave federal and state prisons and about half of them return to prison within three years, according to the Department of Justice. The report suggests that education programs can help lower the costs associated with returning to jail.

Educational programs cost about $1,400 to $1,744 per inmate each year, according to the report, and can save prisons between $8,700 and $9,700 per inmate, the costs associated with incarcerating them again. Put another way, each dollar spent on funding prison education programs reduces incarceration costs by $4 to $5 during the first three years after an individual is released, the period when those leaving prison are most likely to return.

"These findings reinforce the need to become smarter on crime by expanding proven strategies for keeping our communities safe, and ensuring that those who have paid their debts to society have the chance to become productive citizens," said Attorney General Eric Holder in a statement. "As it stands, too many individuals and communities are harmed, rather than helped, by a criminal justice system that does not serve the American people as well as it should. This important research is part of our broader effort to change that."

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Although the RAND analysis suggests prison educational programs may help corrections officials save money, a previous report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that states are spending less on prison educational programs now than in 1982, despite the fact that state expenditures on corrections overall have consistently increased in that time. Spending on education in 1982 accounted for 33 percent of total state expenditures, but dropped to 29 percent in 2010, the lowest it has been in the last three decades.

"Correctional education programs provide incarcerated individuals with the skills and knowledge essential to their futures," said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a release. "Investing in these education programs helps released prisoners get back on their feet — and stay on their feet — when they return to communities across the country."

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