Published On: Thu, Aug 13th, 2015

Why We Should Pay for Inmates to Go to School

How does that headline resonate with you?

If you’re like most folks who haven’t paid much attention to America’s incarceration problem—namely, that more people are locked up in the United States than anywhere else in the world—you probably wouldn’t think it makes a whole lot of sense to advocate spending tax dollars to educate felons and other convicts.

But you’d be wrong.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 2.2 million Americans are locked up, a figure which translates into roughly one whole percent of the country’s adult population. Of those in jail? They’re disproportionately minorities. And according to the NAACP, nearly 1 million of all prisoners in jails are African Americans. Which means that blacks are incarcerated about six times as frequently as whites.

Numbers aside, a lot of those who find themselves in jail are non-violent drug offenders. And others are folks who have simply made mistakes and are paying for them behind bars. They are all human beings—we must never forget that—and while some are undoubtedly heartless and hardened criminals, odds are most of them, or at least many of them, are decent people who want nothing more than to get their lives back on track.

America is the land of second chances, and it always has been. Still, more than three-quarters of those released from prisons end up behind bars sometime down the line. Altogether, these figures reveal something many Americans probably choose to ignore: the fact that our prison system is completely broken.

It’s time for us to do something about it.

photo donkeyhotey

photo donkeyhotey

Obama Pushes Prison Reform

In July, President Barack Obama visited a federal prison in Oklahoma, becoming the first sitting president to do so. He made the trip so that he could push America’s over-incarceration problem into the national spotlight.

“I think we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it’s normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system,” Obama said last month. “It’s not normal. It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things.”

The president went on to say that oftentimes when youngsters get arrested, they don’t have a good support system in place (e.g., supportive parents, enough resources, etc.) so that instead of getting the proverbial slap on the wrist, they get the book thrown at them. The problem is, it often feels like an entire set of encyclopedias.

Just because some kids grow up in worse circumstances than others doesn’t mean that those who are less fortunate should be erased from society. To help prisoners make more of themselves—and reduce the likelihood that many of them will end up back inside a cell once they’re released—the president’s administration is trying to bring education to prisoners who are proactively seeking to better themselves.

In addition to simply being the right thing to do, this education doesn’t even cost too much, all things considered.

“The cost-benefit of this doesn’t take a math genius to figure out,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently. “We lock folks up here, $35,000, $40,000 every single year. A Pell Grant is less than $6,000 each year.”

How We Got Here

Taking a familiar “tough-on-crime” approach, the government voted to keep Pell Grants out of federal prisons about 20 years ago. Proponents of the idea figured it would serve as yet another deterrent to committing crime. In addition to being locked up, folks inside prisons wouldn’t be able to formally continue their education until they were released.

What ends up happening, though, is that many times, convicts who are released back into society lack the education and experience necessary to provide for their families on the straight and narrow. They already have the cards stacked against them by having to admit they’re felons on their job applications. But young men in particular, lacking a proper education, are considerably disadvantaged in terms of being viewed as qualified, legitimate candidates.

With no real job prospects and few (if any) resources to call on for help, many of these folks seemingly have no other choice but to turn back to crime in order to pay their bills and feed their families. And lo and behold, that’s precisely why they end up back inside prison walls. It’s called recidivism, and in the grand scheme of things it’s really not that different from drug relapse, which most of us recognize as a very real problem. The only real solution for either type of backsliding is a strong network of support resources—whether they’re family, friends or, in the case of inmates, a measure of clemency and understanding from the government.

These days, there’s no shortage of folks talking about runaway government spending and how we need to figure out how we can reduce our expenses. By choosing to proactively invest in our young prisoners—those who are really motivated to better themselves—not only will we help rehabilitate those who’ve messed up a time or two, but we’ll also reduce the number of people who end up in jail, thereby lowering yearly related expenses.

Thanks to presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders, more and more Americans are becoming invested in solving this problem with real-world, common-sense solutions.

But let’s put it another way: America is the land of opportunities. It is not the land where you lose everything if you make one careless mistake (particularly when it’s a non-violent drug offense). By investing in our young prisoners—many of whom didn’t have much if any support growing up—we are investing in our country’s future from both a financial and a societal perspective.

It may not cut our prison population in half, but it’s a good start.

Guest Author: Daniel Faris

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