Research finds prison education and work force programs help to reduce recidivism


MIDLAND— The highest quality research on prison education and workforce programs shows a positive impact on recidivism rates, earnings and employment opportunities for participants. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy released a summary of this research — the largest meta-analysis on the topic to date. The complete analysis will be published in an academic journal later this year.

Steven Sprick Schuster and Ben Stickle authored the report, working with the Political Economy Research Institute at Middle Tennessee State University. They are both professors at the university — Sprick Schuster in economics and Stickle in criminal justice administration.

They found in their review of published research that prison workforce and education programs reduce the likelihood of recidivism by 14.8%. The findings also show positive employment benefits for former offenders, including a 6.9% increase in the likelihood of employment and an extra $131 in quarterly wages.

“This research makes clear that investment in prison-based education and workforce training programs produces both safer communities and positive economic returns,” said David Guenthner, vice president for government affairs at the Mackinac Center. “We all benefit from having more ex-offenders equipped to earn their success in the workforce.”

The United States has the sixth highest prison population, with five in 1,000 people behind bars. The cost of incarcerating so many people is steep. Taxpayers spend an estimated $182 billion a year to house prisoners, pay police, and provide for courts, health care, and additional expenses. Given that many prisoners are reoffenders, some states have turned to education and workforce training in an effort to reduce recidivism and prison costs. 

This meta-analysis compiled 148 results from 78 of the highest-quality research papers and studies. It used those estimates to evaluate the average effects prison educational programs have on prisoner recidivism, employment and wages. The findings are divided out by educational level, including adult basic education, high school and GED programs, vocational training and college.

Sprick Schuster and Stickle also calculated the return on investment of these programs. They found that college education programs produce the best benefit for participants, while work training provides the best return on investment from a taxpayer’s perspective. The ROI for each program was positive and that does not include many indirect benefits of lowering recidivism rates, such as fewer victims of criminal behavior and other indirect costs of crime.

Giving former offenders a better chance of success upon reentry into society should be a priority. Unfortunately, very few inmates have the opportunity to take advantage of these programs.

“Even in more forward-thinking states like Michigan, only a minuscule percentage of the inmates released back into society have access to these programs,” said Guenthner. “We will work with our research team and policymakers to lay out a path to substantially expanding these programs.”