The Challenge and Opportunity Ahead for our Criminal Justice System

In 2014, the National Research Council, the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, released “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States, Exploring Causes and Consequences,” which pointed out that U.S. incarceration rates are 5-10 times higher than rates in Western Europe and other major democracies. It noted the staggering racial disparities in incarceration, and called for a significant reduction in rates of imprisonment saying that the rise in the U.S. prison population is “not serving the country well.”

This report didn’t make a huge splash in the press, but it cemented an emerging recognition that our criminal justice policies – our school discipline, “war on drugs,” “truth in sentencing,” and “three strikes and you’re out” policies – of recent decades resulted in unprecedented and costly U.S. incarceration rates that are both ineffective as a crime reduction strategy and harmful to our social fabric. It is safe to say that this is not how we want to be known in the world community. Instead, we should be known for how we engage at-risk populations, how we reinvest in people who deserve a second chance, and how we support the successful transition of justice-involved individuals back into our communities.

We know that young people who are academically engaged and have a positive context for their interactions with adults and with their peers have a lower likelihood of involvement with criminal or juvenile justice agencies. This is so obvious that it is a truism, but across the country we lack enough high-quality educational opportunities, particularly for justice-involved youth. That is why in the next few weeks, OCTAE and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the Department of Justice will announce a grant to expand opportunities for career technical education and career pathways experiences in juvenile justice facilities. This opportunity builds on the Correctional Education Guidance Package that the Departments of Education and Justice released on December 2014, which outlined promising practices for improving education programs in juvenile justice facilities.

Another component of the December 2014 guidance package was a Dear Colleague Letter by the Department of Education clarifying that students who are confined or incarcerated in locations that are not penal institutions, such as juvenile justice facilities and local or county jails, and who otherwise meet applicable eligibility criteria, are eligible for Federal Pell Grants. These need-based grants provide funding to low-income individuals to pursue undergraduate and certain post-baccalaureate education programs. In an effort to further expand postsecondary access for the justice-involved population, last week the Department of Education released a Federal Register notice inviting postsecondary education institutions to apply to participate in an initiative that will waive the statutory ban on individuals incarcerated in Federal or State penal institutions accessing Pell Grants (see this fact sheet for more information).

The recent RAND study of correctional education gives us a strong basis to make the case for correctional education. It documents how investing correctional education reduces recidivism and offers a generous “return on investment.” However, the study also documents the significant reductions in the availability of correctional education opportunities in our Nation’s prisons and jails over recent years.

Correctional education is a potent tool for rehabilitation and reentry since it can reduce our large incarcerated population and the financial burden placed on the government to detain them. As such, it is crucial that we maintain investments in correctional education as we seek to reform our criminal justice system.

The recent reauthorization of the Federal adult education program in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act presents an opportunity for positive justice investment. Limited and badly needed Federal dollars for adult education can, within the provision of the prior law and of the current law, be spent in corrections or in the community. The decision will be made at the State level but the new Federal law gives States discretion to spend up to 20% of those local program dollars on incarcerated and other institutionalized persons – double what the prior law allowed. Effective and efficient correctional education programs with well-documented outcomes should be able to compete effectively for those dollars – especially as the newly authorized activities for correctional education in WIOA are realized – utilizing activities including career pathways, dual enrollment, peer tutoring and transition to reentry services and programs.

Though “reentry” services and programs are critical pillars for our criminal justice reform efforts, these investments are no substitute for diversion programs or sentencing reform. But even these alternatives are not “solutions” to our criminal justice system’s problems. These problems arise from a need for sound reentry policies and services. As we are faced with this over-incarceration crisis, we need to realize the potential benefit of all of our available tools.

In OCTAE, we’ve been supporting “reentry education” for several years now. In 2012, we released an evidenced-based Reentry Education Model that challenged the assumption that the role of corrections education is to remediate an identified educational deficiency (low literacy level, lack of a high school diploma, lack of occupational skills and credentials, etc.) during a period of incarceration in order to have an incarcerated person ready for job placement upon release. That conception of the role of education in prison was a little too neat – it over-promised in an era of increasing correctional populations and decreasing instructional resources.

Through the 2013 Promoting Reentry Success through Continuity of Educational Opportunities (PRSCEO) grant, OCTAE funded the implementation of three demonstration projects that used this evidence-based model. This past June OCTAE released a national evaluation of the PRSCEO program, which offers additional recommendations for effectively bridging the gap between prison and community-based education and training programs.

Reentry education is challenging to implement because it requires that we overcome institutional isolation and articulate between institutional programs and educational programs in the community. It recognizes that education is a journey – and that stopping in and out of educational programs is a common and appropriate pattern for adult learners. It recognizes also that community-based programs might better serve individuals in supporting their transition to employment than a prison-based program.

Historically, OCTAE has focused on addressing the educational needs of justice-involved citizens during their period of incarceration and post-release. Now, however, our focus is expanding – OCTAE, through partnerships with the Department of Justice and other offices in the Department of Education, is exploring preventative and diversionary education-based measures to address the needs of certain citizens before they ever matriculate into the system. In many cases, we can rehabilitate citizens without incarceration and manage to do it efficiently and inexpensively. This could very well prove to be the most straightforward way of reducing the social, financial, and personal costs of over-incarceration in the U.S.