Davis, L. M., Bozick, R., Steele, J.L., Saunders, J., Miles, J.N.V. (2013). Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education. A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults. Rand Corporation. Sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Assistance
Each year, thousands of incarcerated adults leave the nation’s prisons and jails and return to their families and
find jobs, and become productive members of society, many others will commit new crimes and end up being reincarcerated. Although a number of factors account for why some ex-prisoners succeed and some don’t, we know that a lack of education and skills is one key reason. This is why correctional education programs—whether academically or vocationally focused—are a key service provided in correctional facilities across the nation. But do such correctional education programs actually work? We care about the answer both because we want ex-prisoners to successfully reenter communities and because we have a responsibility to use taxpayer dollars judiciously to support programs that are backed by evidence of their effectiveness—especially during difficult budgetary times like these. Across this Administration, we are committed to investing in evidence-based programming, investigating promising practices, and making science a priority.
Fortunately, the passage of the Second Chance Act of 2007 gave us a chance to comprehensively examine the effectiveness of correctional education because it includes a specific provision to improve education in U.S. prisons and jails. The Bureau of Justice Assistance, with guidance from the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, competitively awarded a project to the RAND Corporation in 2010. We asked RAND to comprehensively examine the current state of correctional education for incarcerated adults and juveniles and where the field is headed, which correctional education programs are effective, and how effective programs can be implemented across different settings. This valuable report—a new meta-analysis examining the effectiveness of correctional education programs—is a key part of that effort and can help us answer the question of whether the nation’s investment in correctional education is indeed achieving its intended outcomes.
The results presented here are truly encouraging. Confirming the results of previous meta-analyses— selecting and evaluating them than in the past—RAND researchers show that correctional education reduces postrelease recidivism and does so cost-effectively. And the study also looks at another outcome key to successful reentry—postrelease employment—and finds that correctional education may increase such employment. The reason the findings for employment are merely suggestive is that only one of the 19 studies that evaluated post-employment outcomes used a highly rigorous methodology.
This need for more high-quality studies that would reinforce the findings is one of the key areas the study recommends for continuing attention. Just as important is the need to better understand what makes some programs more effective than others—is it the program design, the type of instruction, the length of the program, or, more likely, some combination of these and other factors? Having such knowledge is key to telling us which programs should be developed and funded—which programs will provide the greatest return on taxpayer dollars. Other parts of the RAND project, including an assessment of best practices derived from examining current programs, will further illuminate what works, but new and ongoing studies should be designed in ways that help isolate the causal effects of particular program designs.
The results provided here give us confidence that correctional education programs are a sound investment in helping released prisoners get back on their feet—and stay on their feet— when they return to communities nationwide. We are pleased to have been able to work cooperatively across our two agencies with the RAND staff and to offer this important information.