The Herald Bulletin

Evening Update

Opinion

May 25, 2011

Editorial: State should invest money in inmates' education

A recent online poll by The Herald Bulletin posed the question, “Should taxpayers pay for inmates to earn college degrees?” Not surprisingly, a large portion (84 percent) of the 303 respondents answered no. Ten percent said it depends on the circumstances, and 6 percent said yes, taxpayers should pay for inmates to earn degrees.

The subject has been in the news recently because the state’s program to provide education opportunities for prison inmates in Indiana will lose most of its funding. Beginning July 1, inmates will no longer be able to get post-secondary education funding from the State Student Assistance Commission. Instead, the Department of Correction will take over administration and funding of the program. The amount of money devoted statewide to the program could sink from about $12 million annually to about $2 million.

At least seven universities/colleges, including Ball State and Ivy Tech, provide inmate education. According to a report in the Tribune-Star of Terre Haute, about 2,400 of the DOC’s 28,000 inmates participate in the program.

It does seem patently unfair that someone who has committed an egregious crime (or crimes) against society should earn a college degree on that same society’s dime. But if you look at the education-for-prisoners program from another angle it does have practical and philosophical merit.

First, the correlation between crime and educational attainment is striking. The less educated a person is, generally, the more apt the person is to end up behind bars. Putting them behind bars and keeping them there is a great burden to taxpayers. A 2008 article in the Denver Post estimated that inmate incarceration and care cost states about $50 billion and the federal government about $5 billion annually. And the United States, with more than 2.3 million inmates, puts people behind bars at the world’s highest rate.

So, wouldn’t it make sense to provide an education for Hoosier inmates so that when they leave prison, they are more apt to get a decent job and less apt to commit more crimes and end up back behind bars — at great expense — again?

The intuitive answer is yes, it makes sense. The problem, as we all know, is that a felony on a person’s record makes it much more difficult for them to find a job, even if they do have a newly minted college degree. Most employers, simply put, just don’t want to take the risk of hiring someone whose past is stained by prison time.

So, should the state fund education for inmates?

Our final answer is yes. Whether it’s for a college degree or a trade skill, the potential benefit to both the prisoner and to the community dictates that the state make a sincere effort at rehabilitation through training or education to improve the inmate’s likelihood of re-assimilation into society. These efforts are best focused on associate degrees and trade training that are generally more apt to reap jobs for ex-cons.

For those of us who hate to see our tax dollars benefit criminals, look at it this way: If you don’t pay for their education/training, you’ll probably pay more later for their re-prosecution and re-incarceration.

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