In the months since COVID-19 struck the United States, mountains of devastating research and reporting have shown how this virus deepens long-standing inequalities. Unsurprisingly, current and formerly incarcerated men and women have been among the hardest hit. Many prisons have seen infection rates far above those of their surrounding communities, while formerly incarcerated people have been excluded from some federal relief funds, despite being five times more likely to be unemployed than their peers before the pandemic.
Today, 2.3 million people sleep behind bars every night, 10.6 million people enter jail every year, and we’ve been so busy building new prisons that we’ve largely failed to create successful pathways for incarcerated people to re-enter society. The system sets up formerly incarcerated people to struggle to find a job, a home, or a bank account; it should be no surprise that more than half of people released from prison end up back behind bars. We can no longer afford to bypass such a significant amount of human potential. As Congress negotiates the next round of stimulus funding, it is imperative they include the millions of formerly incarcerated Americans striving to rebuild their lives in the workforce.
These efforts, however, should begin before incarcerated people are released back into society. In fact, effective reentry should begin as soon as someone enters the system. If we can shift away from maximizing punishment and towards rehabilitation, we can reduce the odds that former prisoners re-offend, save taxpayer dollars on the costs of re-incarceration, empower millions of productive citizens, and tap into the lost potential of entire communities. Recommendations for rethinking reentry, and getting the formally incarcerated back to work, are available for consideration.
A RAND Corporation study found that incarcerated people who participate in correctional education have 43 percent lower likelihood of recidivating and 13 percent higher odds of post-release employment than those who do not. The Vera Institute of Justice, meanwhile, estimates that every dollar spent on prison-based education saves taxpayers between $4 and $5 later on. Correctional education has proven to be a powerful tool for rehabilitation due to its unique ability to impart students with motivation and purpose. These benefits have ripple effects as incarcerated people return home, get jobs, pay taxes, and serve as role models.
Over the past four decades, the US has systematically
dismantled its prison-based education system. But the current imperative for
economic growth creates an opportunity for policymakers to resurrect correctional
education. Congress can open up funding for states and localities looking to
create prison-based education programs in a way that both stimulates the
economy now and saves money later.
Congress has spent years considering whether to make incarcerated learners eligible for federal Pell grants for college courses. This would be an important and far overdue first step. Regardless, they will still need to think more broadly to reach the millions of incarcerated people who are not ready for college-level courses, are incarcerated for sentences that are too short to accommodate college coursework, or are looking to pursue careers not covered by college programs.
Partnerships with local career and technical education providers can be a particularly effective way to prepare students to meet specific local workforce needs. Using existing funding sources like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, Congress can allocate state funding to set up vocational programs that serve local contexts, can be set up quickly, are accessible to learners at all levels, and create immediate employment opportunities for learners after release.
Then, it’s time for Congress to take leadership on improvements to reentry pathways. Currently, a patchwork of state laws govern the support available to returning citizens, and many people leave prison with no more than a few dollars or a bus ticket. Some communities like the District of Columbia, though, have proven that investments in life skills education, employment assistance, and substance abuse counseling can ease the transition. Unfortunately, as states face declining revenue and looming budget shortfalls, people in prison are unlikely to be a priority. Designated federal funds would ensure that communities have the resources to stand up reentry programs and the flexibility to create programs that meet local needs.
Regional and local economies were grappling with
shortages of skilled workers prior to the COVID-19 crisis, and those same
shortages will slow down growth unless we invest in the workforce. We cannot sustain
a recovery while neglecting millions of potential workers.
This moment, though, may be a tipping point. Leaders of both parties agree that correctional education is a solid investment that rehabilitates learners while reducing crime. Cash-strapped states urgently need to shift spending away from incarceration, while economies will need as many productive citizens as possible. Congress should have taken action much sooner, but there’s no excuse for doing it any later.