The Cost-Benefit Of Educating The Incarcerated

September 20, 2016 by

In 1994, President Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

The act intensified already harsh penalties for low-level offenders as well as increased funding for prisons and police. This was the “tough on crime” era, when harsh sentences were dealt out in the blink of an eye, and this act emboldened that stance. But often forgotten is that it also barred incarcerated men and women from receiving Pell Grants for in-prison college programs.

Because of the void created by ending these grants, private education programs began popping up to fill that space. But, being privately funded, their scope for both what they taught and who they taught was limited.

The removal of Pell Grants was supported because elected officials were hesitant to tell their districts that they supported tax dollars going towards educating inmates. The narrative that low-income American students were being forced out of the program in place of an inmate on death row spread like wildfire, causing even more disinterest in the program. Of course that wasn’t the case – Pell Grants are provided based on need, as long as a student shows a financial need for it they receive it.

There are proven benefits of educating inmates.

A study from the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research found that, “A $1 million investment in incarceration will prevent about 350 crimes, while that same investment in [correctional] education will prevent more than 600 crimes. Correctional education is almost twice as cost-effective as a crime control policy.”

It has been noted that inmates who participate in and complete these programs have a 43% less chance of reoffending – in part due to a 13% increased likelihood of finding employment.

There’s a financial incentive, too.

In-prison programs provide a long-term return on investment and benefit the public at-large, regardless of one’s degree of connection to an offender. As taxpayers we should demand that public dollars spent on corrections provide the maximum crime reduction benefit for the least possible cost.

The average cost for educating one inmate ranges between $2,000 and $4,000 while incarceration for that same inmate can range from $30,000 to $40,000. So for an additional investment in correctional education, in many cases, future inmate incarceration costs will be removed from the equation.

Other studies have shown that for every $1 taxpayers spend on correctional education they save between $4-5 on imprisonment costs within the 3 years post release. Most likely because ex-offenders released with limited opportunities typically end up back in prison for some economically motivated crime.

Also, former inmates who are employed contribute to the economy and require less public assistance.

It took some time but the benefits of these programs are being realized. Thanks to philanthropic efforts, many of these private programs have expanded, and a few months ago the Department of Education launched a pilot program – despite the 1994 law – allowing some inmates to receive Pell Grants. Those serving life sentences and on death row are excluded.

The DOE program is partnering with 67 universities, across over 100 facilities, to service 12,000 inmates. Texas has a number of institutions who have signed up to take part in the program: Alvin Community College, Cedar Valley College, Clarendon College, Lamar State College, Lee College, Mountain View College, Southwest Texas Jr. College, University of Houston – Clear Lake, and Wiley College have all partnered to offer everything from certificates to bachelors’ degrees.

In a time of budget cuts that are directly impacting the bottom line of state prisons, it’s worth taking a deeper look at these programs to see if their benefits justify the costs. And, if so, making sure we provide the resources to ensure their success.


About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.