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Research Questions

  1. What is known about the effectiveness of correctional education programs for incarcerated adults?
  2. What is known about the effectiveness of correctional education programs for juvenile offenders?
  3. What does the current landscape of correctional education look like in the United States, and what are some emerging issues and trends to consider?
  4. What recommendations emerge from the study for the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal departments to further the field of correction education, and where are there gaps in our knowledge?

More than 2 million adults are incarcerated in U.S. prisons, and each year more than 700,000 leave federal and state prisons and return to communities. Unfortunately, within three years, 40 percent will be reincarcerated. One reason for this is that ex-offenders lack the knowledge, training, and skills to support a successful return to communities. Trying to reduce such high recidivism rates is partly why states devote resources to educating and training individuals in prison. This raises the question of how effective — and cost-effective — correctional education is — an even more salient question given the funding environment states face from the 2008 recession and its continuing aftermath. With funding from the Second Chance Act of 2007, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, asked RAND to help answer this question as part of a comprehensive examination of the current state of correctional education for incarcerated adults and juveniles. The RAND team conducted a systematic review of correctional education programs for incarcerated adults and juveniles. This included a meta-analysis on correctional education's effects on recidivism and postrelease employment outcomes for incarcerated adults, as well as a synthesis of evidence on programs for juveniles. The study also included a nationwide survey of state correctional education directors to understand how correctional education is provided today and the recession's impact. The authors also compared the direct costs of correctional education with those of reincarceration to put the recidivism findings into a broader context.

Key Findings

Adult Correctional Education Improves Postrelease Outcomes

  • Inmates who participate in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of recidivating than those who did not — a reduction in the risk of recidivating of 13 percentage points.
  • Providing correctional education can be cost-effective when it comes to reducing recidivism.
  • The odds of obtaining employment postrelease among inmates who participated in correctional education was 13 percent higher than for those who did not, but only one study had a high-quality research design.

Several Programs for Incarcerated Juveniles Show Promise

  • Two juvenile correctional education programs show promise: Read 180 and Florida's Avon Park Youth Academy.
  • The field is ripe for conducting larger-scale randomized trials.

Key Trends in the Current Correctional Education Landscape

  • The 2008 recession led to an overall 6 percent decrease in states' correctional education budgets between fiscal years 2009 and 2012, but it had a much larger impact on states with large and medium prison populations (a 20 and 10 percent decrease, respectively).
  • Most states reported using computers in correctional education, but student access to the Internet or Internet-based instruction was limited in most states.
  • Of the states planning to implement the more rigorous 2014 General Education Development (GED) exam that relies on computer-based testing, there are concerns about teachers being adequately prepared to teach it and about the time it may take to prepare students for it, as well as about the negative effect on GED completion rates. Medium and large states are expected to encounter more challenges.


  • Research needs to get inside the "black box" of what does and does not work in correctional education programs to help policymakers make programmatic tradeoffs in a resource-constrained environment.
  • Doing so requires (1) further developing the evidence base by leveraging grant mechanisms to encourage more rigorous research designs, measure intervention details like program dosage, and assess different educational instructional models, innovative strategies to implement information technology in the classroom and enhance instruction, and instructional quality in correctional education settings; (2) establishing a study registry to collect the information from such research; and (3) for the very nascent field of correctional education for incarcerated juveniles, developing large-scale randomized trials and rigorous natural experiments, encouraging partnerships between educators, correctional systems, and researchers, and ensuring the data on juveniles is being collected at the federal level.
  • Two trends merit policy attention. First, given the growing role of information technology in society, policymakers need to determine how to effectively leverage such technology for correctional education and assess its impact on instruction and outcomes. Second, the 2014 GED and the use of computer-based testing have raised serious concerns; policymakers should consider opportunities for technical assistance to educators to implement the more rigorous exam and computer-based testing. Beyond that, policymakers must assess and monitor the impact of the 2014 GED exam on students' preparedness and completion rates and on recidivism and employment outcomes.

The research described in this report was sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Assistance and was conducted in the Safety and Justice Program, within RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment.

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