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Correctional Education as a Crime Control Program, Bazos and Hausman, 2004

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Correctional Education
as a
Crime Control Program

by

Audrey Bazos and Jessica Hausman
UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research
Department of Policy Studies
March, 2004

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Executive Summary

2

Introduction

3

Correctional Education

3

Incarceration

7

Results

7

Recommendations

11

References

13

Appendix A: Cost per Crime Prevented: Method

15

Appendix B: Savings due to Prevented Re-incarcerations: Method

21

Appendix C: Effect Size Reduction

23

Appendix D: The Link Between Education and Crime

25

Appendix E: Potential Critiques

30

1

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Spending on prison education programs fell even as prison populations and budgets soared
during the 1980s and 1990s. In the current fiscal situation many states find themselves in,
additional cutbacks in correctional education programs are expected. Do those reductions make
sense, either from a crime-control perspective or from a long-term budget perspective?
We know expanding the prison population works at reducing crime, but with a very high
price tag. Prison capacity expansion has been estimated to prevent 60,000 to 340,000 crimes per
year with a respective cost of 200 million to 5.5 billion dollars.
Several studies have shown that prison education programs also significantly reduce crime.
Once correctional education participants are released, they are about 10 to 20 percent less likely to
re-offend than the average released prisoner.
This study compares the cost-effectiveness of these two crime control methods - educating
prisoners and expanding prisons. One million dollars spent on correctional education prevents
about 600 crimes, while that same money invested in incarceration prevents 350 crimes.
Correctional education is almost twice as cost-effective as a crime control policy.
Additionally, correctional education may actually create long-run net cost savings. Inmates
who participate in education programs are less likely to return to prison. For each re-incarceration
prevented by education, states save about $20,000. One million dollars invested in education would
prevent 26 re-incarcerations, for net future savings of $600,000.

2

INTRODUCTION
State and federal funding for correctional education programs was significantly reduced
throughout the 1990s while the total incarcerated population increased1. Many states, such as
Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Iowa and California, are further slashing correctional education budgets
due to the current budget crisis2. These states and others, such as Ohio, Michigan and Kansas, are
closing prisons to make the necessary cuts in state spending3.
Budgets need to be cut. But states have a responsibility to protect public safety by
controlling crime. How can states prevent crime with limited resources and save money in the long
run? We will investigate the possibility that prison education programs are the answer.

CORRECTIONAL EDUCATION
There are two basic types of correctional education programs – vocational training and
literacy development. Vocational training courses focus on the acquisition of skills that are directly
transferable to a workplace, such as appliance repair. Literacy development courses are loosely
based on the traditional classroom model centered around the improvement of reading and math
skills.
There are two main reasons why researchers in this field believe in-prison education can
reduce future criminal activity. The first involves the impact of increased cognitive skills on
changes in behavior and the second contends that participants can learn how to live a crime-free life
by participating in education courses.

1

Harrison and Beck, 2002.
King and Mauer, 2002.
3
Justice Policy Institute, “What the States are Doing,” http://www.justicepolicy.org/article.php?id=27
2

3

•

Education:

Available evidence suggests that education programs in correctional

facilities increase literacy4. Increased educational attainment generally is associated
with increased income, even among those with relatively low cognitive skills5,6. And
increased income is associated with a decreased incidence of crime7. This can be
explained because people choose between committing crimes and pursuing employment
in the labor market. The risks associated with committing crimes are larger when having
a job pays more, or getting a job is easier. As a result, choosing to commit a crime is a
less attractive option to those who could earn more money with a legal job. An increase
in an individual’s educational attainment is therefore likely to be associated with
increased earnings, which is in turn associated with a decreased level of criminal
activity. [See Appendix D]

•

Socialization: Prison education programs give inmates the opportunity to learn “prosocial norms” by providing an enclave removed from the “criminal subculture”
predominant among inmates8. Interacting with educators can familiarize inmates with
the norms that law-abiding citizens observe while also reducing the feeling of
“alienation that inmates tend to experience while in prison9.” The resulting
improvement in social skills can make it easier for inmates to find and hold a job upon
release, which in turn reduces their likelihood of re-offending.

4

Based on data from Minnesota, California and Texas, 3 states that keep track of the literacy progress of the inmates in
correctional education. For more information, access the following websites:
http://www.corr.state.mn.us/pdf/2001annualreport.pdf, http://www.tea.state.tx.us/adult/tables2002/ins3.pdf,
http://www.cde.ca.gov/adulteducation/datacollect/fedprogdata/fedstudentdata99-00.html
5
Tyler, Murnane and Willett, 2000.
6
According to Tyler (2003), basic cognitive skills are those that most individuals obtain before completing the ninth
grade.
7
Lochner and Moretti, 2002. Controlling for many factors, including age, cohort and state of residence.
8
Harer, 1995, p.2.

4

The vast majority of studies that have studied the impact of in-prison education on future
criminal activity have found that participation reduces crime. We focused our analysis on the three
studies that took the strongest methodological approach at investigating this relationship10. The first
found that six months worth of participation in an education course among federal prisoners was
responsible for a 15.7% reduction in re-arrests, even after accounting for a number of other factors
known to predict recidivism11. The second found that Wisconsin inmates who complete a high
school or adult basic education course are 20% less likely than the average offender to be reincarcerated, again controlling for characteristics that predict recidivism12. Both of these studies
used statistical regression methods to determine the impact of correctional education. Most notably,
they both controlled for a number of factors believed to predict recidivism rates, such as age, race,
and length of sentence. The study of federal prisoners even controlled for factors such as substance
abuse and employment upon release from prison. Unfortunately, we were unable to include either
the federal or Wisconsin study in our analysis. The complexity of the federal prison system, in that
federal prisoners are contracted out to state and private prisons, prevented us from obtaining
accurate correctional education budget estimates for the federal prisoners studied. While we were
able to obtain the correctional education budget for Wisconsin institutions, the data provided did not
differentiate between the budget for vocational courses and the budget for high school and ABE
courses. As Piehl only analyzed the impact of adult basic education and high school programs on
recidivism, we were unable to apply the available budget data to her findings.
We base our calculations of cost per crime prevented on the findings of a third study – the
‘Three State Recidivism Study’ conducted by the Correctional Education Association. This study
compared the re-arrest, re-conviction and re-incarceration rates of correctional education
9

Harer, 1994, p.37.
Our criteria for a strong methodological approach are the existence of a comparison group and some accounting for
other characteristics that could predict recidivism.

10

5

participants to non-participants in Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio three years after their release13.
The following reductions in recidivism were found for each state:

TABLE 1: REDUCTIONS IN RECIDIVISM RATES IN ‘THREE STATE’ STUDY
State

Maryland:
Minnesota:
Ohio:
[See Appendix C]

Percent
Reduction in
Re-incarceration

Percent
Reduction in
Re-conviction

Percent
Reduction in rearrest

Average Percent
Reduction in
Recidivism14

16
33
23

14
29
21

5
22
14

12
28
19

As the findings of the ‘Three State’ study were comparable to the other two studies that
utilized sound research methodology, we were confident in using the ‘Three State’ study as the
foundation of our analysis. Further, we were able to collect budget and enrollment data for
Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio correctional education programs, which made it possible to conduct
a cost-effectiveness analysis. In order to be conservative in our findings, we discounted the effect
size found in the ‘Three State’ study by 50% before calculating our cost effectiveness and budget
savings figures. This method is consistent with current practice in the field of program evaluation
that reduces the findings of studies that lack an experimental design [See Appendix C]

11

Recidivism is defined as a relapse into criminal behavior. Though no exact measures of this exist, re-arrest and reincarceration are regarded as the best estimate in correctional data.
12
Piehl, 1995.
13
In the “Three State Recidivism Study,” correctional education included adult basic education, high school degree
courses, GED courses, post-secondary academic programs, life skills and pre-release classes and vocational training.
14
To provide a simple figure that demonstrates the crime control benefits of correctional education, we averaged the
three primary indicators of recidivism to generate a single figure.

6

INCARCERATION
Clearly, there are ways to reduce crime other than educating prisoners. Increasing
incarceration rates and lengthening prison sentences through “tough on crime” legislation prevent
crime by incapacitating perpetrators. William Spelman surveyed a large body of research on crime
statistics and criminal activity and found that a one-percent increase in prison populations would
prevent 60,000 to 100,000 crimes per year15 for a total cost of over $200 million a year. We used
these figures as a standard against which to compare the effectiveness of correctional education.

RESULTS
Cost Effectiveness Comparison
What we attempt to do in the analysis that follows is compare the cost per crime prevented by
correctional education to the cost per crime prevented through incarceration. In other words, if a
state has a million dollars to invest in crime control, which method will prevent more crimes –
educating inmates or keeping them imprisoned longer?16
The following information was collected in order to make this comparison:

•

The average cost per participating inmate was calculated by dividing the total correctional
education budgets of the three states’ programs by the total number of participants in all
three states. The average cost per participant is $1,400. Ohio’s program was the largest
with an enrollment of 26,885 students and an annual budget of over $40 million, while

15

Spelman, 1994, p.225
Note what we are not examining here. We do not consider other approaches to crime control, such as communitybased programs for ex-convicts on parole or probation, which may also be cost-effective. Unfortunately, little research
has been done on the outcomes of these programs. We also do not address the social implications of correctional
education programs – what they may do for the families of offenders or the communities to which they return. Rather,
the available research allows us to evaluate prison education programs as a crime control policy against a predominant
alternative – expanding prison populations.

16

7

Minnesota had the smallest program with an enrollment of 2,293 pupils and an annual
budget of $7.8 million.
•

In order to determine how participating in education classes might affect recidivism, we first
needed to know the average number of crimes committed by the offender who never
receives these services. Based on self-reported criminal activity and crime statistics,
William Spelman estimated that increasing prison capacity by 1% would prevent about
80,000 crimes per year. Using this estimate, we concluded that the average offender
commits 9 crimes per year.17

•

According to the results of the ‘Three State’ study, correctional education is responsible for
a ten percent reduction in recidivism (with the 50% discount applied). When we apply this
rate to the nine crimes committed by the average offender, we see that correctional
education prevents about one crime per offender per year.

•

Therefore, the cost per crime prevented by correctional education is about $1,600.

•

This can now be compared to the cost of crime prevention through incarceration. The cost
to incarcerate one inmate is $25,000 a year.

•

Imprisoning one offender prevents about nine crimes, so we get a cost per crime prevented
through incarceration of $2,800.

17

This estimate is congruent with other research that estimates the annual number of crimes committed by previously
incarcerated felons. See Appendix A.

8

TABLE 2: COST PER CRIME PREVENTED COMPARISON
Average annual cost of education per inmate
Expected average number of crimes per offender per year
Reduction in recidivism due to education
Crimes prevented upon release per participant

$1,400
9
10%
.9

Cost per crime prevented by correctional education

$1,600

Annual cost to incarcerate one inmate

$25,000

Average number of crimes prevented by incarcerating one inmate
Cost per crime prevented by incarceration

9
$2,800

Framed in another way, we see that a $1 million investment in incarceration will prevent
about 350 crimes, while that same investment in education will prevent more than 600 crimes.
Correctional education is almost twice as cost effective as incarceration. [See Appendix A]
To determine the strength of our cost-effectiveness findings, we conducted a sensitivity
analysis. Sensitivity analyses are used to test the strength of statistical findings, particularly when
researchers are concerned about the precision of the figures on which their research depends. In
order to be conservative in our research, we discounted the findings of the ‘Three State’ study 50%
in our initial analysis. To test the strength of our cost effectiveness findings, we calculated by how
much we would need to discount the effect size of the study’s findings in order for the costs of
education to break even with those of incarceration.
What we found is that we would have needed to discount the effect size by a total of 72% in
order for the costs of each crime prevention method to break even. Another way to look at this is
that correctional education would only have to be responsible for a 6% reduction in recidivism for
its costs to break even with those of incarceration. Research shows that the true effect of
correctional education on reductions in recidivism is most likely somewhere between ten and
twenty percent.
9

Budget Savings
By preventing crimes, in-prison education is also preventing a number of future re-incarcerations.
Specifically, the ‘Three State’ study found that correctional education was able to reduce reincarcerations by about 24%. Applying the fifty percent discount we applied to all the results from
this study gives us a 12% reduction in re-incarcerations. By dividing the three states’ total
correctional education budgets by the number of prevented re-incarcerations, gives us a cost of
$38,500 per prevented re-incarceration. A million dollars invested in correctional education can
prevent 26 future re-incarcerations.
However, if a state chooses not to invest in correctional education these future reincarcerations will not be avoided. With the average incarceration lasting 2.4 years18 at a cost of
$25,000 per year, 26 incarcerations will cost the state almost $1.6 million dollars. Since avoiding
these incarcerations through correctional education only costs $1 million, a state can gain a net
savings of $600,000 in future costs for every $1 million it invests in correctional education today.
Clearly, spending on prison education saves states money in the long run due to the prevented reincarcerations of its participants. But states will not save this money if they do not make this
investment – prisoners will just keep coming back. [See Appendix B]
With these findings we again conducted a sensitivity analysis. The findings of the ‘Three
State’ study would need to be discounted by a total of 78% in order to bring the future savings of
correctional education down to zero. In other words, correctional education would only need to
reduce re-incarcerations by 3% in order to eliminate future savings.

18

Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2001.

10

RECOMMENDATIONS
Don’t cut what works
States have a responsibility to ensure public safety, and cannot abandon this duty in times of
budgetary crisis. Cutting funding for prison education programs is a bad decision. These programs
prevent more crimes than increasing incarceration rates and lengthening sentences – and cost far
less. They even save states money on correctional budgets by reducing the number of offenders
who return to prison in the future.
Keep detailed, accurate records at correctional facilities
Correctional education administrators should record as much information about their
programs as possible. Crucial data includes the number of hours per week prisoners and teachers
spend in the classroom, how prisoners perform on a literacy assessment before and after
participating in the program, how many participants drop-out of classes, and how much each type of
program (e.g. adult basic education, vocational education) costs per year. With these data,
researchers would be able to determine the amount of classroom time necessary to create gains in
literacy and decreases in recidivism. This would inform an effort to produce a maximally costeffective correctional education system.
Invest in further research
Several large-scale studies should be conducted to add to the body of research on the effects
of correctional education. These studies would need to have the following components:
•

Random assignment: The most fundamental improvement that could be made to
correctional education research would be random assignment – to randomly place in
either a treatment or control groups those inmates who wish to participate in education
programs. To make this politically feasible, find states with long waiting lists for
11

correctional education19. Use the gap between supply and demand for these programs to
justify the random selection and assignment of program participants.
•

Participant characteristics: Participants in both groups – treatment and control – should
be within three years of release, but have no less than a year left on their sentences. The
treatment group will need ample time to actively participate in their classes. Some
matching will need to be done between the treatment and control groups to ensure that
there are no significant differences in age, race, criminal history, incarcerating offense
and education level. This will require a large sample size.

•

Programmatic details: Researchers must clearly state the types of correctional education
programs that have been implemented in their study. They should investigate the effects
of participation in each type of program separately, such as vocational or adult basic
education, so that conclusions can be made about which approach best reduces
recidivism at the lowest cost.

•

Follow-up: Program participants and non-participants should be tracked for three years.
Information about how often recidivists are re-arrested per year (as opposed to whether
or not they were arrested in a given time period) should be collected to get a more
accurate estimate of the true recidivism rate.

•

Size: The population size (and funding) required for this type of study depends on the
assumptions made. If we believe that the true effect of education on recidivism is
around 20%, we would need 550 participants and an equally sized control group in order
to have enough power to find significant results. If we believe that the true effect of
education on recidivism is only 10%, we would need 1,800 participants with an equally
sized control group in order to have enough power to find significant results.

19

Lawrence, Mears, Dubin, and Travis, 2002

12

REFERENCES
Aos, S., Phipps, P., Barnoski, R., Lieb, R. 2001. “The Comparative Costs and Benefits of Programs
to Reduce Crime.” Version 4.0. Washington State Institute for Public Policy.
Beder, H. 1999. “The Outcomes and Impacts of Adult Literacy Education in the United States.”
National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy, Harvard Graduate School of
Education. Retrieved January 14, 2003, from www.gse.harvard.edu/~ncsall/research/report6.pdf.
Blumstein, A., J. Cohen, and D. Nagin (eds.). 1978. “Deterrence and Incapacitation: Estimating
the Effects of Criminal Sanctions on Crime Rates.” Washington, D.C.: National Academy of
Sciences.
Card, D. 1994. “Earnings, Schooling, and Ability Revisited.” Princeton University, Industrial
Relations Section, Working paper #331. Retrieved January 14, 2003, from
http://www.irs.princeton.edu/pubs/pdfs/331.pdf.
Gendreau, P., Goggin, C., and Little, T. 1996. “Predicting Adult Offender Recidivism: What
Works!” (User Report No. 1996-07). Ottawa: Department of the Solicitor General of Canada.
Greene, J. and V. Schiraldi. 2002. “New Prison Policies for Times of Fiscal Crisis.” Washington,
D.C.: Justice Policy Institute. Retrieved March 18, 2003, from
http://www.justicepolicy.org/downloads/CuttingCorrectly.pdf.
Grogger, J. 1998. “Market Wages and Youth Crime.” Journal of Labor Economics v16, n4: 754791.
Haigler, K., C. Harlow, P. O’Connor, and A. Campbell. 1994. “Literacy Behind Prison Walls.”
National Center for Educational Statistics. Retrieved March 8, 2003, from
http://nces.d.gov/publs94/94102.pdf.
Harer, M.D. 1994. “Recidivism Among Federal Prisoners Released in 1987.” Federal Bureau of
Prisons, Office of Research and Evaluation. Retrieved January 14, 2003, from
http://www.bop.gov/orepg/oreprrecid87.pdf.
Harer, M.D. 1995. “Prison Education Program Participation and Recidivism: A Test of the
Normalization Hypothesis.” Federal Bureau of Prisons, Office of Research and Evaluation.
Retrieved January 14, 2003, from http://www.bop.gov/orepg/orepredprg.pdf.
Harrison, P.M. and A.J. Beck. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin: Prisoners in 2001. Retrieved
December 3, 2002, from http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/p01.pdf.
Kessler, D. and S. Levitt. 1998. “Using Sentence Enhancements to Distinguish Between
Deterrence and Incapacitation.” National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper
6484. Retrieved March 10, 2003, from http://www.nber.org/papers/w6484.

13

King, R.S. and M. Mauer. 2002. “State Sentencing and Corrections Policy in an Era of Fiscal
Constraint.” Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project. Retrieved March 18, 2003, from
http://www.sentencingproject.org/policy/pub9091.pdf.
Lawrence, S., D.P. Mears, G. Dubin, and J. Travis. 2002. “The Practice and Promise of Prison
Programming.” Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute. Retrieved December 5, 2002, from
http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/410493_PrisonProgramming.pdf.
Levitt, S. 1995. “Why do Increased Arrest Rates Appear to Reduce Crime: Deterrence,
Incapacitation, or Measurement Error?” National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working
Paper 5268. Retrieved March 10, 2003, from http://www.nber.org/papers/w5268.
Lochner, L. and E. Moretti. 2002. “The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison
Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports.” National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working
Paper 8606. Retrieved January 14, 2003, from http://www.econ.ucla.edu/moretti/lm46.pdf.
Minnesota Department of Corrections. 2002. “2001 Annual Performance Report.” Retrieved
December 5, 2002, from http://www.corr.state.mn.us/pdf/2001annualReport.PDF.
National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.) “Prose Literacy and Sample Items.” Retrieved
March 4, 2003, from http://nces.ed.gov/naal/defining/measprose.asp.
National Institute for Literacy. (n.d.) “Correctional Education Facts.” Retrieved December 5,
2003, from http://novel.nifl.gov/nifl/facts/correctional.html.
Pastore, A.L. and K. Maguire (eds.). 2001. Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics [Online].
Retrieved January 15, 2003, from http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook.
Piehl, A.M. 1995. Learning While Doing Time. Kennedy School Working Paper #R94-25.
Electronic copy received from author.
Spelman, W. 1994. Criminal Incapacitation. New York, N.Y.: Plenum Press.
Steurer, S., L. Smith, and A. Tracy. 2001. “Three State Recidivism Study.” Correctional
Education Association. Retrieved December 5, 2002, from
http://www.ceanational.org/documents/3StateFinal.pdf.
Texas Education Agency. “Participant Progress, Separation and Attendance by Educational
Functioning Level.” 2002. Retrieved January 13, 2003, from
http://www.tea.state.tx.us/adult/tables2002/ins3.pdf
Tyler, J., R. Murnane, and J. Willett. 2000. “Cognitive Skills Matter in the Labor Market, Even for
School Dropouts.” National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy, Harvard
Graduate School of Education. Retrieved January 14, 2003, from
www.gse.harvard.edu/~ncsall/research/report15.pdf.
Tyler, J. 2003. “Basic Skills and the Earnings of Dropouts.” Brown University Department of
Economics, Working Paper 2002-09. Electronic copy received from author. Previous version
available from http://www.econ.brown.edu/2002/wp2002-09.pdf.
14

APPENDIX A: COST PER CRIME PREVENTED: METHOD

Our cost-effectiveness analysis compares the reduction in crime20 associated with
correctional education to that of prison expansion. The data we collected gave us the following
information on correctional education program enrollments and budgets for each state in the ‘Three
State Recidivism’ study:
TABLE 3: 1997 STATE CORRECTIONAL EDUCATION ENROLLMENTS AND BUDGETS
State
Maryland
Minnesota
Ohio

Cumulative Enrollment21
14,523
2,293
26,885

Annual budget22
$11,857,298
$7,832,029
$40,231,253

These data were collected from the following sources:
Maryland
Enrollment and budget: Mark Mechlinski, Field Director, MD Correctional Education.
Minnesota
Enrollment: Estimate - 2,781 inmates participated in ABE, vocational education and
academic higher education by the end of third quarter, FY2001 (‘Three State,’ pg. 59),
which accounted for 43.9% of that year’s total prison population. 43.9% of 1997’s prison
population is 2,293. We are assuming there were no significant changes in the proportion of
inmates enrolled in correctional education between 1997 and 2001.
Budget: Jamie Friesen Nordstrom, Accounting Manager, MN Department of Corrections.
20

Throughout the majority of this study when “crime” or “serious crime” is referred to, we are speaking of the seven
FBI index crimes. These crime categories are murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft and
arson. However, when we are making comparisons to the RAND data we differentiate between ‘serious crime’ and
‘total crime.’ Only murder, rape, robbery, assault, 60% burglaries and arson are defined as ‘serious crimes.’ This is
because California law does not consider theft, motor vehicle theft and 40% of burglaries serious crimes. All of these
crimes combined are defined as ‘total crimes.’
21
We chose to use total cumulative correctional program participants per year rather than average participants per day
(i.e., number of program “slots”) in our calculations because no information was reported on the ‘length of
participation’ of education ‘participants’ in the ‘Three State Recidivism’ study. Participants, therefore, could be
inmates who attended classes for a week and then dropped out. We felt that ‘total cumulative participants’ would be a
better approximation to the actual types of participants in the study than would ‘average participators per day.’
38
All dollar amounts are converted to 2003 dollars to provide a standard rate to compare cost data from different years.

15

Ohio
Enrollment: Ohio Central School System: www.drc.state.oh.us/web/educatio.htm
Budget: Estimate based on FY 1999 actual budget of $37,491,900 (Ohio State Government
Book, 4th Edition, pg. 599) less $750,000 for ‘Youthful Offenders program,’ less 3% for
annual budget increase (Richard Ebin, Project Manager, OH Department of Rehabilitation
and Correction.)
Comparing a 1% increase in prison bed capacity to correctional education
William Spelman estimated that a 1% increase in current prison bed capacity would reduce
crime by .12 percent to .20 percent, which translates into 60,000 to 100,000 serious crimes
prevented per year23. This one-percent increases prison populations by 9,000 inmates, at a cost of
$25,000 each – for a total of $225,000,000 a year. If incarcerating 9,000 additional offenders result
in a reduction of 60,000 to 100,000 crimes, then the number of crimes prevented per offender
ranges from 6.67 to 11.11 per year.
60,000 / 9,000 = 6.67 crimes per year
100,000 / 9,000 = 11.11 crimes per year
We use the mid-point of this range, 8.89 crimes per year in our analysis. If 9,000 offenders
are committing an average of 8.89 crimes per year, then the cost per crime due to an increase in the
prison population is $2,812.
$225,000,000 / (8.89 * 9,000) = $2,812
This estimate is in line with other research conducted on the average number of serious
crimes committed per offender. Based on survey research previously conducted on inmates,
Spelman estimated that six offenses per year are committed by anyone that has ever been arrested
for a serious crime. For those who have been arrested two or more times, a cohort more
representative of the prison population as a whole, 15 to 20 offenses are committed per year.

23

Spelman, 1994.

16

Offenses and crimes are not interchangeable, however. Consider the case of two men working
together to rob a bank. In this case, “each one has committed an offense, but there is only one
crime”24. Based on Spelman’s figures, we estimate that there is an average of 1.56 offenders per
crime committed. Reanalysis of existing research allowed Spelman to estimate that 1.73 offenders
are involved in the average personal crime and 1.39 offenders are involved in the typical adult
property crime. An average of these two numbers gives us 1.56 offenders per crime.
If the number of offenses per offender ranges from 6 to 20, then applying this 1.56 offenders
per crime estimate tells us that offenders commit somewhere between 3.85 and 12.8 crime per year.
6 / 1.56 = 3.85
20 / 1.56 = 12.8
In order to compare the cost-effectiveness of correctional education to that of prison
expansion, we will use Spelman’s 8.89 crimes per offender per year estimate in our calculations.
Table 4 shows this rate applied to the findings of the ‘Three State Recidivism Study’ to
assess correctional education’s comparative cost-effectiveness.

24

RAND, 1994, p. 17.

17

TABLE 4: COST PER CRIME PREVENTED BY CORRECTIONAL EDUCATION
Crimes per
participant per year

Total crimes
per year

Reduction due to
education*1

Crimes prevented
by education

Correctional
education budget

Cost per
crime prevented

8.89

129,110

5.82%

7,516

$11,857,298

$1,578

2,293

8.89

20,385

14.2%

2,887

$7,832,029

$2,713

26,885

8.89

239,008

9.6%

22,939

$40,231,253

$1,754

8.89

388,502

9.86%

38,306

$59,920,580

$1,564

Participants
Maryland
14,523
Minnesota

Ohio

Average

*1 The reduction due to education is based on recidivism rates of participants compared to non-participants, with a 50% discount.
Again, based on Spelman’s research, cost per serious crime prevented due to a 1% increase in prison population costs $2,812 a year.
Average cost per serious crime prevented:
Correctional education:
$1,564
Incarceration:
$2,812
Serious crimes prevented per $1 million invested:
Correctional education:
639
Incarceration:
356
Based on these findings, correctional education is 1.8 times more cost-effective at preventing crime than incarceration.

18

The preceding calculations applied a discount rate of 50% to the findings of the ‘Three
State’ study. However, this discount is rather arbitrary. The true discount required to account
for flaws in the methodological design may be more than this rate or nothing at all. To account
for this unknown, we re-calculated the cost per crime prevented using a range of discount rates
on the effect size.
TABLE 5: COST PER CRIME PREVENTED BY CORRECTIONAL EDUCATION
VARYING THE DISCOUNT ON THE RECIDIVISM RATE

No discount
50% discount
72% discount

Reduction in
recidivism
19.7%
9.86%
5.48%

Crimes prevented
by education
76,535
38,306
21,308

Cost per crime prevented by incarceration:

Cost per
crime prevented
$783
$1,564
$2,812
$2,812

What this table demonstrates is that the effect size discount rate would have to be more
than 72% in order for the crimes reduced through incarceration to be more cost-effective than the
crimes reduced through prison education. This means that the true effect of correctional
education on crime reduction would need to be 5.5% in order for it to “break even” with
incarceration. This is far below the ten to twenty percent researchers believe to be the true effect
size of education.
Another assumption we make in our findings is that the mean number of crimes
committed per offender per year is 8.89. While Spelman was able to estimate a range of 6.67 to
11.11 crimes per offender per year, other research he reviewed found that the average may be
more like 3.85. Separate research based on inmate surveys conducted by RAND found that the
average might actually be around 2.6 serious crimes per offender per year. To account for the

19

possibility that our 8.89 crimes per offender may be an overestimate of the true rate of crime, we
tested our results against a number of different rates. These results are listed below in Table 6.
TABLE 6: COST PER CRIME PREVENTED BY CORRECTIONAL EDUCATION AS
COMPARED TO PRISON EXPANSION USING RANGE OF CRIME RATES
Total crimes
per year*1

Reduction in
recidivism

Crimes
prevented*2

Cost per crime
prevented*3

Correctional Education
8.89 crimes/yr
6.67 crimes/yr
3.85 crimes/yr
2.6 crimes/yr

388,502
291,486
168,249
113,623

9.9%
9.9%
9.9%
9.9%

38,306
28,740
16,589
11,203

$1,564
$2,085
$3,612
$5,349

Prison Expansion
8.89 crimes/yr
6.67 crimes/yr
3.85 crimes/yr
2.6 crimes/yr

80,010
60,030
34,650
23,400

$2,812
$3,748
$6,494
$9,615

*1 Number of crimes participants would have committed had they not received education.
*2 Total crimes multiplied by 9.9% reduction in recidivism
*3 Total state correctional education budget divided by number of crimes prevented.
*4 Number of crimes offenders would have committed had they not been incarcerated.

Notice that when we change the assumptions made about the number of crimes
committed per participant per year, we are also changing our assumptions about the crime rates
of offenders incarcerated by prison expansion. At every crime rate, correctional education is
twice as cost-effective as prison expansion.

20

APPENDIX B: SAVINGS DUE TO PREVENTED RE-INCARCERATIONS: METHOD

The ‘Three State’ study tracked the re-incarcerations of a sample of offenders; some had
participated in correctional education, and some had not. The study reported that 29.7% of nonparticipants were re-incarcerated when tracked three years after release. We applied this
percentage to the total number of participants in all three states’ correctional education programs,
43,701. Had these prisoners never participated in any education programming, 12,965 of them
would have been re-incarcerated (43,701 * .297).
The study found that correctional education was responsible for a 24% reduction in reincarcerations in these three states. When we apply the 50% discount, this becomes an effect
size of 12%. By applying this rate to the 12,965 re-incarcerated prisoners, we see that
correctional education is responsible for preventing a total of 1,557 re-incarcerations (12,965 *
.12).
We then divided the total budget for correctional education in the three states
($59,920,581) by the number of re-incarcerations prevented by correctional education (1,557) to
find the cost per prevented re-incarceration: $38,481. So, a $1 million investment in correctional
education will prevent 26 future re-incarcerations ($1,000,000 / $38,481).
We then had to compare this to the cost of an average incarceration to determine whether
any future savings were associated with investing in correctional education. According to the
Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average length of stay is 2.4 years, with a cost of 25,000 per
year25. Therefore, the average incarceration costs roughly $60,000. Incarcerating these 26
offenders would cost the state about $1,560,000. But preventing these incarcerations through

25

Pastore and Maguire, 2001.

21

correctional education only costs the state $1 million. A state can save almost six hundred
thousand dollars in future costs by investing one million in correctional education today.
In an effort to test the sensitivity of our findings, we varied the 50% discount rate we
originally applied to the recidivism rate of program participants. The break-even point – where
the cost of preventing one incarceration through correctional education was the same as the cost
of the average incarceration – was reached when we discounted the effect size by 78%. Another
way to look at this is that correctional education’s true effect on reduced re-incarceration would
have to be around 3% for a state to realize no future savings – a figure that is much lower than
what was found by the ‘Three State’ study.

22

APPENDIX C: EFFECT SIZE REDUCTION

Thus far, none of the studies examining the effect of correctional education on recidivism
have been experimental. Because there has not been random assignment of inmates into control
and treatment groups, we cannot know that the reductions in recidivism witnessed are truly due
to the education programs. While a number of attempts have been made to account for this,
there may yet still be some unmeasured traits among participants that are correlated with lower
recidivism rates.
It is for this reason that less confidence can be placed in the cause-and-effect conclusions
made about correctional education’s ability to reduce recidivism. In order to account for this, we
have followed the lead of the ‘Washington State Institute of Public Policy’ (WSIPP) by
discounting the effect size of the ‘Three State’ study’s results by 50%. WSIPP developed a
system to rate the methodology and resulting reliability and validity of studies examining the
effects of programs intended to reduce crime (‘The Comparative Costs and Benefits of Programs
to Reduce Crime,’ WSIPP, 2001). Based on their criteria26, we estimate that the ‘Three State’
study would score a ‘3’ on a scale of 1 to 5, wherein:
“A ‘3’ indicates an evaluation where the program and comparison groups were
matched for pre-existing differences in key variables. There must be evidence
presented in the evaluation that indicates few, if any, significant differences in
these variables. Alternatively, if an evaluation employs statistical techniques (e.g.
logistic regression) to control for pre-existing differences, and if the analysis is
successfully completed, then a study with some differences in matched preexisting variables can qualify as a level 3 study” (WSIPP, pg. 40).

26

Although the ‘Three State’ study was published subsequent to the WSIPP analysis, a conversation with the lead
author of the study – Steve Aos, led me to conclude that it would also score a ‘3’ for methodological design.

23

Discounting the recidivism rates gives us the following results:

TABLE 7: DISCOUNTED RECIDIVISM RATES (50%)
State

Maryland:
Minnesota:
Ohio:

Percent
Reduction in
re-incarceration

Percent
Reduction in
re-conviction

Percent
Reduction in
re-arrest

16
33
23

14
29
21

5
22
14

Average
Percent
reduction in
recidivism
12
28
19

50 percent
discount of
reduction in
recidivism
6
14
10

Note: The true discount due to poor methodological design may be more or less than 50%.

24

APPENDIX D: THE LINK BETWEEN EDUCATION AND CRIME

According to research, increased educational attainment is associated with a decreased
incidence of crime27. This can be explained because people choose between committing crimes
and pursuing employment in the labor market. The risks associated with criminal activity bear a
greater cost when the alternative to crime, having a job, pays more. As a result, choosing to
commit a crime is a less attractive option to those who could earn a greater amount in the labor
market.
The association between education and crime can also be derived from research that
indicates that increased cognitive skills28 are associated with increased income, and that
increased income is associated with decreased crime. Several prominent studies establish that
there is a positive relationship between cognitive skills and income29. Key findings include:
•

The payoff to a minor difference in measured cognitive skills is between $1,000
and $1,400 in annual income among those with relatively low cognitive skills.
This return to skills is even greater among those who failed the GED. Individuals
who scored slightly higher but still failed the test earned significantly more —
$2,000 for men and $3,000 for women — than those who scored lower and failed
the test30.

•

Basic cognitive skills are rewarded with higher income in the labor market31.

27

Lochner and Moretti, 2002. Controlling for many factors, including age, cohort and state of residence.
The term “cognitive skills” refers to an individual’s mental abilities due to a combination of innate ability and
educational attainment. It is generally supposed that cognitive skills can be increased through instruction.
Assessments that quantify cognitive skills include the SAT, GED, Air Force Qualifying Test (AFQT), or the
National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS).
29
Card, 1994; Tyler, Murnane and Willett, 2000; Tyler, 2003.
30
Tyler, Murnane and Willett, 2000.
31
According to Tyler (2003), basic cognitive skills are those that most individuals obtain before completing the
ninth grade.
28

25

•

The effects of schooling on income are large, and may be underestimated by up to
30%32.

These findings indicate that educational attainment and cognitive skills are rewarded with
higher income in the labor market, even for those individuals on the lower end of the
distribution. Therefore, criminal behavior is more costly to those with higher cognitive skills
because they have more to gain in the labor market than they can expect to gain from crime.
This may result in reduced criminal behavior. In fact, research has corroborated this
relationship33.
This association between education and crime offers an opportunity for policy makers to
dedicate resources to improving cognitive skills as a crime control policy. Much of this research
on the payoff to education considers traditional K-12 education instruction. However, we can
also apply the fundamental reasoning of the preceding analysis to the population of adult
learners. Investment in children and youth is certainly critical, but there may be payoffs to
targeting the adult population, as well.

Adult education
Before arguing for an investment in adult education as an effort to reduce crime, it is
important to answer a key question: can adults improve their cognitive skills by attending
academic courses?
Several large evaluations have shown that adults benefit from education services in
different ways. In some programs, adult learners have demonstrated employment and earnings
gains34. Other research shows that participants are likely to self-report gains in basic cognitive

32

Card, 1994.
Grogger, 1998.
34
Beder, 1999.
33

26

skills35. However, these studies do not use pre- and post-testing to establish that real
improvements in literacy have occurred.

Literacy
The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) defines literacy as “using printed and
written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's
knowledge and potential36.” Five levels of literacy are commonly referred to in the field. The
NALS describes them as follows:
•
•
•

“Level 1: Individual can read a little but not well enough to fill out an
application, read a food label, or read a simple story to a child.
Level 2: Individual usually can perform more complex tasks such as
comparing, contrasting, or integrating pieces of information, but usually
not higher-level reading and problem-solving skills.
Levels 3 through 5: Individuals usually can perform the same types of
more complex tasks on increasingly lengthy and dense texts and
documents.37”

Separate evidence directly from state outcome reports does suggest that adult education
programs improve literacy. For example, California and Ohio released data that indicates that
participants in adult education programs gained at least one level of literacy38. California’s
statistics show that between 45% and 65% of adult learners gained a literacy level after
participating in an adult basic education program39. Ohio’s reporting illustrates that over half of

35

Ibid.
The National Assessment of Adult Literacy defines literacy as http://nces.ed.gov/naal/defining/defining.asp
37
http://www.nifl.gov/nifl/faqs.html#measure
38
There are several different definitions of literacy used in the adult education field. The NALS scale uses a 1-5
scale that rates the ability to find and analyze information embedded in text (prose), the level of mathematical skill
(quantitative) and the ability to understand and complete everyday forms (document ). Many states have their own
measures of literacy. Some are similar to the NALS scale but several more levels, such as the system in California.
Others, such as Minnesota, follow the scale that compares skills to the standards related to grades K-12.
39
http://www.cde.ca.gov/adulteducation/datacollect/fedprogdata/fedstudentdata99-00.html
36

27

adult learners completed a literacy level. Approximately 35% of them completed more than one
level40.
This data illustrate two things. First, it does seem that adult education programs are
effective at improving cognitive skills. Second, states have a long way to go to improve their
reporting of adult education outcomes. The U.S. Department of Education is leading efforts to
standardize reporting, but state governments use many scales other than the NALS. This makes
it difficult to compare the literacy gains attributed to programs in different states.

The literacy of inmates
The NALS found that the literacy of the prison population differs substantially from the
“household” – or, free, population (see Table 1 below). Approximately 67.5% of the
incarcerated population functions at the two lowest levels of prose literacy, compared to 47% of
the household population. The average member of the household population scores a 3 on the
prose portion of the NALS assessment, whereas the average prisoner scores a 2. The difference
between these two levels is observed in analytic skills that are necessary to process information
in the often indirect ways it is presented in the real world.
TABLE 8: PERCENTAGE OF POPULATION AT EACH LITERACY LEVEL41
NALS Prose Literacy Level
1
2
3
4
5

40
41

Incarcerated population
30.5
37
26
6
0.5

Household population
20
27
32
17
3

http://www.ode.state.oh.us/ctae/adult/able/annual/EnrollmentCompletionProgressSummary2001.asp
http://novel.nifl.gov/nifl/facts/correctional.html

28

Clearly, the prison population has a great need for adult basic education – in fact, their
need is greater than that of the household population. However, skeptics argue that inmates are
not capable of increasing their cognitive skills. Evidence suggests the contrary.

Literacy outcomes
Available evidence suggests that education programs in correctional facilities have a
positive impact on cognitive skills. In Minnesota, 28% of enrollees in prison education programs
increased a grade level in one year42. In California, approximately 37% of adult learners in the
correctional population gained a literacy level in one year43. In Texas, participants in prison
education programs demonstrated gains as well; an average of 36% of inmates completed one
literacy level in one year. And an average of 21% of inmates completed two or more levels in
the 2001-2002 fiscal year44.

42

http://www.corr.state.mn.us/pdf/2001annualreport.pdf
http://www.cde.ca.gov/adulteducation/datacollect/fedprogdata/fedstudentdata99-00.html
44
http://www.tea.state.tx.us/adult/tables2002/ins3.pdf
43

29

APPENDIX E: POTENTIAL CRITIQUES OF OUR METHODS

In order to conclude that correctional education programs are more cost-effective than
increasing prison beds, we are implicitly making the assumption that the types of crimes
committed by education participants are equally or more expensive than the crimes committed
by the general offender. For example, if education participants typically commit relatively
inexpensive crimes compared to the general prison population, one would not be able to
conclude that correctional education is more cost-effective. Prison expansion may be preventing
fewer crimes, but as a whole, the monetary benefits of preventing those crimes may outweigh
those of correctional education.
However, this does not appear to be the case. In both the ‘Three State Recidivism’ study
and ‘Learning While Doing Time,’ the correctional education participants are, on average, more
serious offenders. By examining ‘crime of current incarceration’ and ‘re-arrest offenses’ among
the inmates in the ‘Three State’ study, we see that education participants are more likely to be
violent felons.
TABLE 9: ‘THREE STATE’ CRIME OF CURRENT INCARCERATION
Type of Crime
Violent
Property
Drug/Alcohol

Participants
50%
27%
18%

Non-participants
38%
30%
25%

TABLE 10: ‘THREE STATE’ RE-ARREST OFFENSES FOR RELEASE COHORT
Type of Crime
Violent
Property
Drug/Alcohol

Participants
30%
23%
21%

Non-participants
24%
23%
22%

30

Further, we can see that violent crimes are substantially more expensive than property crimes:
TABLE 11: AVERAGE COST TO THE VICTIM PER CRIME
Type of Crime
Violent
Robbery
Assault
Property
Burglary
Larceny
Auto Theft

Cost per victim
$14,357
$13,712
$1,564
$203
$3,565

Source. Criminal Incapacitation, Spelman, 1994, pg. 223
All costs expressed in 1989 dollars.

The cost-effectiveness of correctional education previously calculated may actually be
underestimated to the extent that education participants tend to commit more serious (or more
expensive) crimes than the average offender.
‘Learning While Doing Time’ corroborated the finding that correctional education
participants are more serious offenders. It does not provide data on crime of incarceration nor
recidivating crime, however it does provide data for length of sentence and prior penal
experience. Even though those who complete an education course had fewer prior penal
experiences (28%) than the sample on average (49%), they had longer than average sentences
(64.71 months) than the sample as a whole (58.07 months). As prior convictions can affect the
length of subsequent sentences, we would predict that the full sample, on average, should have
longer sentences due to their prior records. However, we see the opposite: those who complete
an education course have longer sentences. This probably indicates that the crimes for which
they were incarcerated are, on average, more serious crimes than those committed by the average
prisoner. More serious crimes are also more expensive crimes.

31

One could also make the argument that the population of education participants is simply
less inclined to commit crime than is the average offender upon release. Because the ‘Three
State’ study did not use an experimental study design , we cannot know that the participants were
not less likely to recidivate from the beginning, independent of the effects of education. What
we can see, however, is how the two groups match up on criminality indicators, or indicators
thought to predict the future criminal patterns of offenders. One would think that some of the
best predictors of criminality in the future would be criminal history factors. The ‘Three State’
study allows us to compare the differences between participants and non-participants on these
factors.
TABLE 12: CRIMINALITY INDICATORS
Indicator
Average number of
felony arrests
Average number of
times in jail
Average number of
times in prison
Average age

Participants
N=1,342
5.05

Non-participants
N=1,757
4.69

Total Population
N=3,099
4.8459

3.57

3.73

3.66

2.35

2.62

2.5

30.8

32.6

31.82

The number of prior felony arrests indicates that the participants have a higher degree of
criminality, while the number of prior incarcerations in jail and prison would indicate the
opposite. Across all three categories the differences are minute, inconsistent, and probably not
statistically significant. This suggests that to the extent differences between participants and
non-participants on criminality exist, they are likely to be unobservable.

32

These indicators are simply that – predictors of future criminal behavior. Such indicators
only go so far in predicting actual future criminal behavior. It may be that there are some
unknown characteristics of the participant group that make them less likely to recidivate. It is
precisely for this reason that the effect sizes for the reductions in recidivism found in the ‘Three
State’ study were reduced by 50%, which may be overestimating or underestimating the true
effect of the differences between participants and non-participants.

33

 

 

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