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This report surveys the current landscape of correctional education, discussing both the educational needs of people involved in the criminal justice system and the programs being provided to meet those needs. It reviews research on the effectiveness of correctional education; outlines the guiding principles for effective programming; discusses the issues involved in providing education in correctional settings; and identifies some potential responses to these challenges. The report closes by looking to the future and highlighting key issues and new directions in research, policy, and practice. More information about the Reentry Roundtables can be found at http://www.urban.org/projects/reentry-roundtable/index.cfm.
The United States now has both the highest incarceration
rate and the largest total number of people
behind bars of any country in the world: 2.3 million. For the first time in U.S. history,
more than one in every 100 adults is currently incarcerated in jail or prison (The Pew
Charitable Trusts 2008). The impact of this level of incarceration is acutely concentrated
within particular communities, classes, and racial groups. In 2005, the national
incarceration rate for whites was 412 per 100,000, compared with 2,290 per 100,000
for blacks and 742 per 100,000 for Hispanics (Mauer and King 2007). Recent studies
demonstrate that young black men, particularly those without college educations, are
the population most affected by incarceration (The Pew Charitable Trusts 2008;
Nearly 95 percent of the nation’s incarcerated population will eventually be released
and will return home to communities across the country (Travis 2005). This year alone,
more than 700,000 people will leave state and federal prison (West and Sabol 2008)
and more than 9 million individuals will cycle in and out of local jails (Solomon et al.
2008). When they are released, many of these individuals will return to some of the
most impoverished neighborhoods in the country (La Vigne, Cowan, and Brazzell
2006; Lynch and Sabol 2001). They will confront serious challenges as they struggle to
reconnect with their families and neighbors and become productive members of society. The likelihood of these individuals returning to criminal
activity is high: within three years of release, 68 percent
of people released from state and federal prison are rearrested
and over half return to prison (Langan and Levin
2002). Identifying effective strategies for reintegrating the
thousands of men and women who return home from prison
and jail each year is critical not only for them, but also for the
health and stability of their families and the safety and wellbeing
of their communities. Given the potential impact on
public safety, community well-being, and criminal justice
budgets, prisoner reintegration should be an important priority
for national, state, and local governments.
While there has been increasing discussion about the intersection
of prisoner reentry and issues of workforce development,
housing, health, and public safety, insufficient attention
has been paid to the role that in-prison and post-prison education
can play in facilitating successful reentry. Education has
been widely recognized as a pathway to assimilation and
economic mobility for immigrant and other disadvantaged populations throughout
U.S. history (Isaacs, Sawhill, and Haskins 2008). For people involved in the criminal justice
system, education offers a path to increased employment, reduced recidivism, and
improved quality of life (Gaes 2008).
Access to education is particularly important given current economic trends. Economists
predict that the labor market will tighten in the next decade and that labor market
inequality, particularly among unskilled workers, will continue to grow if the demands
for skilled labor are not met (Holzer and Nightingale 2007). An ever-increasing share of
jobs in the U.S. economy requires postsecondary preparation, and college-educated
workers earn 26 to 36 percent more than individuals who have not attended college
(Decker et al. 1997). If properly designed and implemented, education programs in
correctional facilities and communities can provide individuals involved in the criminal
justice system with the academic instruction, vocational training, and cognitive and
life skills they need to succeed in today’s economy.
Despite its potential for changing lives, high-quality education is not readily accessible
to many people involved in the justice system. Adults returning from prison and
jail and those on community supervision are still overwhelmingly undereducated compared
with the general population, with lower levels of formal educational attainment
and poorer performance on tests of basic literacy (Crayton and Neusteter 2008).
Fortunately, opportunities to address the educational needs of criminal justice populations
may expand as policymakers increasingly recognize the limitations of the
nation’s narrow approach to crime and public safety issues. The passage of the federal
Second Chance Act in April 2008, for example, indicates a remarkable shift in the political
will to address the challenges facing currently and formerly incarcerated individuals and encourage their potential to contribute to society.
Instead of threatening community safety and draining economic
resources, formerly incarcerated people with educational
preparation and other supports can provide for themselves
and their families and contribute to the economic and
social well-being of their communities.
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