In our opinion: Prison education pays off in reduction of repeat offenders

Published: Monday, July 29 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Inmate Ken Taylor operates a grinder at the DATC auto and machining shop at the Utah State Prison, July 11, 2013
 (Andrew Adams, Deseret News) Inmate Ken Taylor operates a grinder at the DATC auto and machining shop at the Utah State Prison, July 11, 2013 (Andrew Adams, Deseret News)

A study by the University of Utah shows that providing educational opportunities to prison inmates sharply reduces rates of recidivism, a finding that only validates a policy of obvious public value that should be embraced, fostered and perhaps expanded.

The study, released recently by the Utah Department of Corrections, shows that rates of recidivism drop by 18 percent among inmates who complete a prison education program, and by 38 percent among those who also find employment after incarceration. The numbers show the program holds significant public value by reducing the overall number of inmates who at any time are confined in the state's burgeoning correctional system.

According to the data, every dollar spent on educational programs — about $1 million per year — returns between $6 and $13 dollars in displaced cost value by simply reducing the number of felons who re-offend and end up back in prison. About half the cost of the program is born by inmates themselves through low-interest loans.

The problem of recidivism is intractable, but the study shows some substantial alleviation is indeed possible. Currently, about half of those incarcerated in state or federal institutions return to prison within three years of their release. In Utah, the recidivism rate is somewhat higher.

The results of the Utah study should assuage those hard-line lawmakers who perennially object to funding prison education programs on grounds they provide perks to felons who are sent to prison to be punished, not pampered. They also argue it is unfair to provide schooling to inmates whose crimes have deprived their victims of similar opportunities.

Nonetheless, the programs offered at the state prison in Draper through the Davis Applied Technology College are an example of a government initiative that offers broad social and economic benefits, both now and in the long-term.

According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice, only 41 percent of inmates in custody at any given time have achieved a level of education beyond attending some portion of high school. Among the general population, 82 percent have at least that level of education. And prison inmates are four times less likely to have undertaken post-secondary schooling compared to the public at large.

Those numbers say something profound about the correlation between education and a penchant for criminal behavior. The corollary is clear — more schooling equals less crime. And the University of Utah report proves that correlation remains true even after a person has been incarcerated.

As such, the state's corrections system should continue to nurture programs that allow inmates a chance to learn a skill and pursue employment upon release. Officials would be wise to look further into programs that may increase the chances of an educated inmate finding work after he or she completes a sentence, perhaps through greater outplacement support and partnering with potential employers.

The prison schooling programs are less an example of government largesse than a prudent investment in keeping down the number of offenders who, without means for gainful employment, are likely to see their release from prison as nothing more than the first leg of a return trip.

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