Cover: Serving Time or Wasting Time?

Serving Time or Wasting Time?

Correctional Education Programs Improve Job Prospects, Reduce Recidivism, and Save Taxpayer Dollars

Published May 22, 2014

by Lois M. Davis, Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Jessica Saunders, Jeremy N. V. Miles

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Serving Time or Wasting Time?

Correctional education programs improve job prospects, reduce recidivism, and save taxpayer dollars.

In the largest-ever meta-analysis of U.S. correctional educational programs, RAND researchers found compelling evidence that the prison-based programs not only work but also are cost-effective. Correctional education will likely face near-term budget cuts in many states, but its high return on investment should remain a high priority in future state budgets.

  • The bad news

    Of the more than 700,000 people that U.S. prisons release each year, 40% of those released inmates end up back in prison within three years.

  • Part of the problem

    Prisoners say they need education and job training to reintegrate into society. They’re right: 68% of inmates in state prisons lack a high school diploma.

  • The encouraging news

    Most state correctional institutions offer primary, secondary, vocational, special, or college education programs. 84% of state correctional institutions offer some type of education or training.

The Cases of Inmates Knott and Keen

Knott and Keen are hypothetical inmates. How does the use of their time in prison affect their lives after release?

  • Name
    Knott, James
    Date of birth
    Enrollment Status

    Application Denied

    Knott wasn’t able to enroll in correctional education of any kind. Had he enrolled in any such program (vocational, special, or academic), his odds of obtaining employment would have increased by 13%.

  • Name
    Keen, Lisa
    Date of birth
    Enrollment Status
    GED Program

    You're Hired

    Like other ex-offenders who participated specifically in vocational training programs, Keen increased her odds of getting a job by 28%.

Inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 30% chance of recidivating, compared with 43% for those who do not. That’s a 13-percentage-point drop in the risk of recidivism for those who participate.

What about the money?

Five dollars saved for every dollar spent

The cost of correctional education programs per participant is $1,400–$1,744. Nearly a third of participants still recidivate. But the average savings per participant from reduced reincarceration rates is $8,700–$9,700 over three years. Even assuming the highest average cost ($1,744) and the lowest average savings ($8,700), the three-year return on investment for taxpayers is nearly 400%, or $5 saved for every $1 spent.

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