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Education Lowers Prison Recidivism, Study Finds

Finally, some good news in the so-called school-to-prison pipeline: It goes both ways.

A new study by the RAND Corp., a Washington-based policy research group, finds that inmates who participate in prison education programs are more likely to find a job and less likely to return to prison after being released.

Researchers led by Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher at RAND, conducted a meta-analysis of 58 high-quality studies of correctional education programs, including GED and high school completion, career training, and postsecondary degree programs.

They found that, overall, those who participated in education programs while behind bars were 26 percent more likely to get a job—and 43 percent less likely to return to prison—in the three years after being released than were prisoners who had not participated in the programs. (This is a finding which builds on other studies that found lower recidivism among those who completed a college degree in prison.) Moreover, those who received vocational training were 28 percent more likely to be employed after release than those who did not.

The analysis suggests correctional education may help close a monumental achievement gap between the prison population and other Americans: According to the most recent 2004 data, more than one in three inmates had not completed high school, compared to less than one in five Americans ages 16 and older.

"Our findings suggest that we no longer need to debate whether correctional education works," Davis said in a statement on the study, "but we do need more research to tease out which parts of these programs work best."

The RAND report did not probe much about what aspects of the various education programs were most effective, though it did find some evidence that self-paced, computer-based programs were slightly more effective than traditional corrections education. Computer-based programs provided about three months' worth of additional learning in mathematics and 10 days' more learning in reading, RAND found.

Overall, RAND finds the justice system saves $4 in recidivism costs for every dollar spent on schools behind bars. None of the findings, of course, undermine the results of other reports suggesting communities would save far more money by ensuring students are well-educated and never enter that school-to-prison pipeline in the first place.

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