It’s not surprising that inmates who participate in educational programs while incarcerated are much less likely to return to prison. For most people, education’s role in recidivism seems pretty intuitive. We often view education as a key to providing more opportunities for employment and thinking about ourselves and the world in different ways, both of which are powerful for incarcerated individuals.
Digging into the research on education and recidivism certainly confirms these assumptions, but just how effective is education at reducing recidivism? And, perhaps more importantly, how can criminal justice programming get the most impact out of educational programs? Keep reading to learn more about the whys and hows of education’s role in recidivism.
Employment after release is a powerful indicator of recidivism. Check out our Data Sheet on Reentry and Employment to learn about how to work collaboratively to reduce recidivism and put ex-offenders back to work!
In 2013, the RAND corporation released a study of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults. Using a meta-analysis approach, they completed a comprehensive review of the scientific literature on education and recidivism. Then, they reviewed hundreds of published and unpublished studies. After selecting those that met rigorous research standards, they extracted, analyzed, and aggregated their results.
The study found strong evidence that education’s role in recidivism reduction is substantial. In fact, the study found that inmates who participate in correctional education programs reduce the likelihood of returning to prison by 43 percent. Significantly, that estimate is based on studies that carefully account for motivation and other differences between correctional education recipients and non-recipients.
“Our findings suggest that we no longer need to debate whether correctional education works,” Louis Davis, the head researcher for the project, explained. She noted that the next challenge will be doing “more research to tease out which parts of these programs work best.”
Of course, one of the biggest factors in successful reentry and avoiding recidivism is whether or not someone can find lasting, meaningful employment. Not surprisingly, participation in correctional education programs has a significant impact on reentry employment outcomes. According to the RAND study, “Employment after release was 13 percent higher among prisoners who participated in either academic or vocational education programs than those who did not. Those who participated in vocational training were 28 percent more likely to be employed after release from prison than who did not receive such training.”
This correlation is significant because it demonstrates that one of the most significant parts of education’s role in recidivism is helping to mitigate the unique barriers to employment that face formerly-incarcerated individuals. Generally, those who end up in prison begin their post-release life with lower levels of literacy and educational attainment in general, a lack of vocational skills, and no history of steady employment. Stigma from having a felony conviction is a substantial reason many employers refuse to hire (and often even just interview) formerly incarcerated individuals. And research shows that incarceration is also associated with a significant decline in hourly wages (14-26%). The power of education to help reduce these challenges—and in the process, increase positive outcomes for reentry—is very real.
When comparing the cost of reincarceration to the cost of education, it’s clear that education is a cost-effective intervention. While there is limited data on all of the cost factors associated with reincarceration, the RAND study looked at rough estimates comparing the two for a hypothetical group of 100 inmates:
“We estimated that the three-year reincarceration costs for those who did not receive correctional education would be between $2.94 million and $3.25 million. In comparison, for those who did receive correctional education, the three-year reincarceration costs are between $2.07 million and $2.28 million. This means that reincarceration costs are $870,000 to $970,00 less for those who receive correctional education. Given that the costs of providing education to this group of 100 inmates would range from $140,000 to $174,400, providing correctional education appears to be cost-effective when compared with the cost of reincarceration.” (emphasis added)
As we discussed in our post on Evaluating Prison Education Programs, “An important outcome for individuals with criminal histories is long-term employment in a living-wage occupation. To support this outcome, prison education programs must work with and support reentry education programs.” In practice, that means aligning educational programs in three ways: 1) career pathways, 2) evidence-based curriculum and teaching, and 3) recruitment and retention.
Aligning educational programs with career pathways means looking beyond a “first job” after release. Ensuring that individuals are prepared for continued growth and advancement reduces the risk of ending up in a “dead-end job” that can undercut successful reentry. The prison environment poses unique challenges and limitations to education. Ensuring that prison education programs are implementing evidence-based curriculum and instructional practices helps to ensure the best outcomes in spite of these challenges.
Finally, prioritizing access for prisons most likely to see successful outcomes or most in need of resources will ensure that limited resources have the most impact possible. Retention efforts should encompass how to keep inmates participating in a given program. But, they also need to ensure a successful transition from prison education programs to reentry education programs and short- and long-term employment.
While most states offer some type of correctional education, surveys find no more than half of inmates receive any instruction. That means that, with the right support, there are still huge opportunities for successful education programs to grow and expand. We are excited to provide support to these efforts, from program and case management to data collection and reporting that supports positive reentry and rehabilitation outcomes.