More than five in every 1,000 people in the U.S. population are behind bars, the sixth highest rate in the world, even though many other countries have higher violent crime rates. The Prison Policy Initiative project that 6% of Americans will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes, including one in 10 men and almost one in three African-American men.
The impact of high incarceration rates extends beyond the effects on inmates and their families. There are large societal costs, directly and indirectly, with each crime and corresponding imprisonment. Direct costs consist of the expenses to house prisoners and other forms of public expenditures within the criminal justice system. A 2017 estimate places the cost to house prisoners at $80.7 billion, while the costs of policing, courts, health care, and various other expenses brings the total price to $182 billion. The cost of crime on victims themselves is another significant, if difficult to quantify, cost of criminal activity.
The indirect costs of imprisonment are also a concern and may be even more impactful to society. For example, incarceration decreases employment, social engagement, civic participation, and education rates for the incarcerated. Imprisoning parents increases the likelihood that their children also end up in prison.
With all the costs and negative impacts of incarceration, how could the situation be improved? Because a sizable portion of prisoners are repeat offenders, one strategy is to rehabilitate the incarcerated and provide them with education or training while in prison. This will set them up for productive and legal work when released.
Unfortunately, this effort is not new, and the disappointing prospects of rehabilitation eventually gave way to the ‘70's mindset of "nothing works." This conclusion led to bipartisan support for increasingly punitive prison sentences and a reduction in rehabilitation programs. After all, if nothing worked in rehabilitating criminals, why waste money on education and training instead of just locking the cell and throwing away the key? Combined with a dramatic increase in crime and escalating punishments in the ‘80s and ‘90s, incarceration rates dramatically increased.[*]
While incarceration rates have recently slowed (down from the peak in the 2000s), they remain high and are four times the rates in the 1970s. Education programs within prisons are gradually experiencing a resurgence as funding for programs is restored. Government action — such as the First Step Act or the expansion of Second Chance Pell Grants — has devoted more resources and public money to prison education.
But the question remains: Do these programs work? If so, what are the costs associated with the dollars spent and dollars saved (if any), and what is the impact on prisoners? These critical questions must be answered to ensure education programs are effective and dollars are invested wisely.
[*] Some examples are the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the expansion of three-strikes laws in the 1990s.