Efforts to reduce the rate of repeat criminal offenses are notoriously ineffective. Policymakers have created program after program aimed at driving down recidivism rates, but most of the time these don’t accomplish much. But new Mackinac Center research indicates there is one relatively simple and inexpensive way to fight crime: Educate prisoners.
Last year the Mackinac Center teamed up with an economist and a criminal justice expert from Middle Tennessee State University. We aimed to analyze the best academic research on the impact of prison-based educational programs. Daniel Smith, a former intern at the Center and member of our Board of Scholars, made the connection for us.
We suspected these programs had a positive impact, based on a handful of studies we were aware of, as well as anecdotal evidence from a few programs in Michigan. Our scholars’ work to test this suspicion was thorough. They systematically reviewed 750 research papers on the topic and identified 78 high-quality studies from that group. Our researchers then averaged and summarized the findings from the highest-quality studies.
They found that education programs offered in prisons decreased the chance of a prisoner returning to prison by 15%. This may not seem like much. But considering the high and rising cost of prisons, a 15% reduction saves a lot of taxpayer money.
Our researchers found other benefits from these programs. Inmates who received education or training while in prison were 7% more likely to find employment after serving their sentences, and they earned higher wages, too.
The study compared the performance of various educational programs, such as remedial courses, GED programs, vocational training and college-level classes. Each type of program had a positive return on investment from the taxpayers’ perspective, with vocational training yielding the greatest benefit. College degree programs had the lowest return for taxpayers, though they provided the most benefits for participants.
We published a summary of these findings in January, and it is available on our website. The scholars — Steven Sprick Schuster and Ben Stickle — plan to publish their full results in an academic journal later this year. The Mackinac Center is planning to do more research along these lines in 2023. We hope to inform policymakers about the importance of prison-based educational programs and see more of them soon in Michigan.