How Effective Is Correctional Education?

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Radio Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2014/02/how-effective-is-effective-correctional-education/

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, an extraordinarily good program, How Effective Is Correctional Education and Where Do We Go to From Here? A new research report from the Rand Corporation and the US Department of Justice by our microphones today is Lois Davis, she’s a senior policy researcher for the Rand Corporation and John Litton, he is Director of Correctional Education for the US Department of Education. I want to very briefly read a synopsis of this report. The study’s key findings is that correctional education is effective in terms of reducing recidivism for incarcerated adults and there is some evidence that it’s also effective, especially for vocational education in terms of improving a person’s likelihood of post-release employment. Every dollar spent on correctional education, $5 is saved. John and Lois, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Lois Davis: Thank you.

John Litton: Thank you Leonard.

Len Sipes: Alright Lois, the first question goes to you. A very prestigious report, you have briefed folks at the capital and you’ve just come from the White House, and we’re honored, White House to DC Public Safety. I’m not quite sure if that’s too big of a step down from the White House. But you briefed Congress; you briefed the White House, what were your primary thoughts about the briefing, and give me a sense as to the report itself.

Lois Davis: Well, I was very pleased with the turnout. It was impressive that there was quite a range of representation across, not just within Congressional staff, but also outside of Congress. And so, it clearly says that they idea of correctional education resonates with a lot of different people. One of the main messages that we wanted people to understand for this report is, once we really look at the effectiveness of correctional education that it’s important to understand that indeed it is effective in reducing recidivism, improving post-release employment and outcomes, but also it’s cost effective. So the debate moving forward should no longer be about whether or not it’s effective, it’s really about what can we do to move the field forward, and where can we fill in our gaps in our knowledge.

Len Sipes: John Litton, you’ve been involved in correctional education for an awfully long time, you and I worked together in the state of Maryland with the US Department of Education. This report is very important to the US Department of Education, correct.

John Litton: Yes, we’re very pleased to have the benefit of this report. It was mandated by Congress and the Bureau of Justice Assistance did a competitive process to award the opportunity to do the report, do the whole study to the Rand Corporation. The Rand folks did an excellent job and the findings are very interesting and we think quite compelling.

Len Sipes: Now the research indicates there was a 13% overall reduction in recidivism, which is extraordinarily important, but I do want to point out that I’ve seen reports, Maryland was one, three-state survey was done about 20 years ago now, where you had a 20% reduction in recidivism. So you’re going to get variances in terms of the individual pieces of research that you looked at Lois, so some are going to be higher, some are going to be lower, yours averaged out to be 13%.

Lois Davis: Yes, in fact one of the things we did was a systematic look at the studies that have been published all the way back from 2008 to the present. And 1980 to the present. And so what we’re doing is using a meta-analysis, which is a statistical technique to synthesize results across studies. And so to give a single estimate. So if we look at correctional education for the United States, I think our study shows that on average, within the United States, that you can expect a 13-percentage point reduction in the risk of recidivating. Another way that translates, which is a dramatic number, that also means that’s a 43% reduction of the odds of recidivating. So that alone I think is compelling evidence about its effectiveness.

Len Sipes: Now one of the interesting things that I find is that it doesn’t take a lot, and I’m getting this now, the Washington State Public Policy Institute did a little research a little while ago talking about what percentage of reduction it takes to be cost effective in, in any jurisdiction. They looked at, not research in just the state of Washington, but research throughout the country. And one of the things that I found from that research and one of the things that I’m getting from your research is that it doesn’t take a whole heck of a lot in terms of that percentage reduction for it to be cost effective, so it’s almost foolproof, it is not in terms of returning more dollars than it takes?

Lois Davis: That’s a really good point. When we look at it from a cost effectiveness analysis, what you see is that breakeven, so in other words, for the cost of a correction education programs to be break even in terms of the cost of incarceration, you only need a reduction of about 1-2 percentage points. But indeed we’re showing that it’s a 13-percentage point reduction.

Len Sipes: Right.

Lois Davis: So it’s a significant payback, so to speak, in terms of your return on investment.

Len Sipes: So John what we’re talking about is, you know, people say 13%, well Leonard, son of a gun, that doesn’t seem that high to me, the cost effectiveness part of it I understand, but what we’re talking about is if you extrapolate and apply this to all 50 states, if you can somehow, someway apply it to jails, you’re talking about literally hundreds of thousands, eventually millions of crimes not committed, correct?

John Litton: Yes, crime reduction as well as the cost benefit and one thing I just wanted to add to Lois’ comment is that incarceration is very expensive. So anything that we can do that reduces future incarceration, even a small percentage, can really payoff financially. So there’s been a tendency in recent years to disinvest treatment programs, putting more and more money into the bricks and mortar aspect of corrections, and I think that it’s time that we took stock of that and realized that very small investments and effective treatment programs can really be a good return on the taxpayer’s dollar.

Len Sipes: Well, speaking of the taxpayer’s dollar, the other point that I wanted to make is that we are talking about the potential for saving, again, states, not just crimes, but savings the states hundreds of millions, eventually billions of dollars if you can take that 13% recidivism rate and again, it’s going to be higher in some studies, lower in other studies, but if you can take that 13%, extrapolate it, you’re talking about saving states a tremendous amount of money.

John Litton: Very significant savings.

Len Sipes: Ok, now the question goes to either one of you. Because John mentioned it a couple seconds ago. There seems to be a disinvestment in correctional education and that doesn’t surprise me. We just went through a tremendous recession, states are really upset as to all the money that they have to throw in to their correctional systems, they find it to be burdensome, the challenge that they’ve placed upon all of us in the criminal justice system is to find a better way of doing it, so the fiscal burden on the states will not be that much. So they have cut back though. And that does create a significant conundrum for the rest of us, right?

Lois Davis: That’s exactly true, and in fact, one of the things when we started the study is that in our discussions with state correctional educational directors and others, it was clear that the recession had a huge impact. So what we did is we fielded a national survey that really allows us to get a picture, what is correctional education look like today, but also to get a sense of what the impact of the recession was. So for example, what we see is that states had a dramatic in reduction correctional education budgets, particularly in large and medium-sized states. By large and medium, I mean states that have the largest prison populations. And so the results of that were actually a contraction in the capacity of the academic programs within the system.

Len Sipes: Fewer people got programs that were necessary.

Lois Davis: That’s exactly right.

Len Sipes: Now one of the things that puzzles me again, the question goes out to either one, but John you would be the most logical person to take this. From my 25 years in terms of dealing with correctional operations, correctional programs keep prisons safe, do they not?

John Litton: I believe that’s true, yes.

Len Sipes: That’s not one of the points of the research, but when I dealt with, throughout my time, my 14 years with the Maryland Department of Public Safety, it was always emphasized to me by wardens, by assistant wardens, by security chiefs, that the more programs that you had inside of that prison, the calmer that prison was, the less violence occurred and made it a safer place of everybody. The correctional officers, the correctional staff and the inmates. Is that a correct observation?

John Litton: Well, I’m not a corrections expert, I’m more of the education person but I certainly personally believe that that’s true and I think it’s important that people be engaged in productive activity. If incarcerated individual and persons incarcerated for an extended period of time limited physical opportunities, limited mental opportunities, limited opportunities for social development, the opportunities for that returning citizen to come out and be productive and be productively engaged, common sense would say that it’s diminished. So it’s important that there be a range of constructive opportunities during the period of incarceration. I think it’s important also in terms of the message that we’re giving to the incarcerated population, that we really do have expectations for a positive outcome and that we believe that investing in you as a person that’s being prepared to return to free society, that we expect you to take advantage of those opportunities and to be engaged in a positive way when you’re released from incarceration.

Len Sipes: Lois, please.

Lois Davis: I’d also like to add to that it’s been interesting to see that as we talk to correctional officials across the country that they see correctional education as a really good news story. To them, it’s a program that they point to as being a real success, both in terms of increasing safety and security within the system, but also in terms of ultimately being able to point for example, to GED completion rates as a good news story for them. So they too recognize the importance of an education.

Len Sipes: Now I’ve been talking to folks at the Department of Education and I’ve said that I was going to do this radio program and one of things that we were talking about was this, and you touched upon it in your report, is that distance learning, remote learning seems to be just as effective as classroom learning. And I understand that has an awful lot of implications, but some people envision a centralized location in the state of educators, pumping information in to every prison in that state, thereby dramatically expanding the capacity of correctional education or vocational education. Right now, we’re in the process here at Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, of learning green screen television production. There is a company out there called Linda.com, that has the most wonderful pieces of video, instructing you on every little detail, every little piece of doing green screen television. It’s transcribed, so you can print that transcription so you have something to read. Long distance education seems to be taking prominence now and if it’s just as effective, or close to being just as effective as classroom education, isn’t there the possibility that every state can do that, provide vocational and educational opportunities throughout their state system through long distance learning. Anybody want to take a shot at that?

Lois Davis: I actually wanted to; in the report where we look at it is the effect of computer-assisted instruction. And we do see that we don’t detect a difference for example, between an outcome of say reading the math scores for those that receive computer assisted instruction, versus those that receive traditional instruction. Now, when we think about distance learning, there’s a lot of potential there, but it doesn’t necessarily replace the need for the face to face interaction, the one on one interaction with instructors, so there’s a real need for us to really look at some innovative examples out there and try to assess really where the capacity is for improving the capabilities of distance learning.

Len Sipes: John, is it everybody in the ballpark when they’re saying to themselves, maybe we can get everybody involved if we do long-distance learning because we’re never going to be able to afford the classroom capacity? Is that right or wrong or should we be looking at it that way?

John Litton: I think there’s, we definitely need to be looking at that question and I don’t think it’s an easy answer. But one of the things that happened in corrections is that there have been many security concerns about access to the internet and most distance learning is internet enabled, and I think there’s some feeling that perhaps we can move past the security issues, we have some solutions for the security issues. And that might rather quickly open many new possibilities for using distance learning. So as Lois has said, we really need to take a, have an open mind in terms of doing some pilot programs and doing some research and studying the effectiveness. There definitely is importance for social learning. We don’t think that just replacing interaction in a classroom, interaction with a teacher, interaction with other learners with a computer is probably the end all and the be all, but we certainly think that technology is being under-utilized in correctional environments and it’s a great potential to use our resources more effectively by using distance-learning resources and certainly as you were pointing out Leonard, when people need some of these technology skills to be effective in our communities today, because the world has changed, so it’s a really, really important area. One that was given quite a bit of emphasis in the report and we’re quite excited about following up on that.

Len Sipes: The interesting thing is that every correctional administrator that I’ve ever talked to and every parole and probation administrator that I’ve ever talked to has said I would wish and pray that there was a certain point where everybody in, who’s incarcerated had that opportunity to go and get their GED, get their 8th grade certificate, learn how to read, learn how to write, go to brick laying class, and come out fully equipped, fully skilled. If every correctional administrator in this country, I can’t speak for them all, the ones that I’ve talked to at least, seems to be very supportive of correctional education, if every parole and probation administrator, and again I haven’t talked to them all, but every one that I have talked to has said this, if everybody is so supportive of this, then why isn’t it more expansive and more extensive than what it actually is?

Lois Davis: Well, I just wanted to comment a little bit about that. When you talk to the educators, they would say that that kind of the security concerns about access to the internet kind of a drive a lot of the decisions about whether or not they can, the extent to which they can use computer technology in the classroom. Now, there’s good simulated internet programs that allow you to address giving access to some of the online courses for inmates to get the experience of using the internet-based system, without it actually being the real internet. So that’s an important step that we need to make, we need to advertise more broadly, that is available. Because the security concerns are definitely one that are constantly in the background of the decision making about this area.

Len Sipes: We’re more than half way through the program. The program today is How Effective Is Correctional Education and Where Do We Go to From Here, done by the Rand Corporation and the Bureau of Justice Assistance to the US Department of Justice. Our guests today are Lois Davis; she’s a senior policy researcher for the Rand Corporation. John Litton is Director of Correctional Education for the US Department of Education. So the real concern seems to me to be this, we are all supportive of this, those of us in the correctional field. Is there really a disagreement that somehow, someway be it remote, or be it in person, that this needs to be offered to virtually every person that occupies that prison bed?

Lois Davis: That’s, you know, the survey that we did was, we asked the question, in your state, is correctional education mandatory or is voluntary? And what we learned, particularly for individuals for example who had less than an 8th grade education or lower levels of educational attainment, indeed in most states, it is mandatory. But for the bulk of inmates, it is something they can self-select into. And so we don’t really see it as something that should be part of a core piece of the rehabilitative process that we require everyone to participate in. But it is definitely something that many people can benefit from.

Len Sipes: My problem is that in so many instances when I take a look at substance abuse, when I take a look at mental health, I’m finding the numbers to be very small, in terms of the people who actually go through substance abuse or even mental health treatment within the incarcerated setting. In some cases, those figures turn out to be 10 or 15%. Again, I understand that there are some states that push that to 20 or 30%, but in most state system and most research that I’ve seen, the numbers are fairly small. Do we have a sense as to what percentage of inmates within the incarcerated setting within prisons are actually getting vocational and educational programs? Do we have that sense?

Lois Davis: You know, we do know that it’s the story where you have basically; most correctional systems offer correctional education, particularly GED, adult basic education. To a lesser degree, for example, post secondary education or vocational training, but then the flip side of that is so how many inmates within that system actually get access to those programs. And that’s where there is a disparity. The recession really did reduce the capacity of the number of inmates to go through these programs, and so the fact that we’re seeing less offerings available, I think is something to be concerned about. But the numbers vary from state to state in terms of the percentage of inmates who are participating in these programs.

Len Sipes: When you talk to people at Congress, when you talk to people within the White House, did they seem to understand the importance of doing this and the importance of what it would mean, both at the state and federal level in terms of fewer expenditures, fewer crimes committed? Do they really understand the implications of the research?

Lois Davis: Yes, it’s actually been very gratifying to see the response. It really is an opportune time, because with the focus at the federal level now on re-entry and understanding what programs we really need in place individuals, this is really the great timing in terms of attention being paid to; let’s think about what programs are effective. And so our report has been very well received and I know that we’ve heard anecdotally for example it’s informed strategic planning both within the Department of Justice as well as the Department of Education and in other areas. I think people really are getting it.

Len Sipes: People in supervision have sat by these microphones in the 11 years in my being here, and 14 years with the state of Maryland I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who were currently caught up in the criminal justice system. To a person, they have said it’s the programs that have helped them cross that bridge, as I like to put it, to a crime lifestyle to a crime free lifestyle. Going from tax burden to tax payer. The programs always seem to be the bedrock. Now they had to have the motivation and they had to really believe in themselves and really believe in a future beyond drugs and beyond crime, but the programs helped them cross that bridge, the programs helped them become the people they are today. I mean, they’re in the community, they’re supporting themselves, they’re supporting their children, they’re being good community members because they went to a brick laying class in the Maryland prison system, John. I hear that all the time. So talk to me about that, the importance to the individuals caught up in the criminal justice system with these programs.

John Litton: Well, I think you’ve said it Len. We’ve heard from so many individuals that really do attest to the fact that an opportunity really meant something to them, really did make a difference in their life. One thing that we’ve been focusing on a little bit more recently and I’m proudest of the work we’ve done on this is that we’ve realized that many people come out of prison and really face tremendous obstacles in terms of moving directly into employment, and so we’ve been focusing somewhat on opportunities to continue education post-release and use their association with educational agencies and institutions entities to make the bridge to employment. That our traditional model had been that we would take care of the educational needs during the period of incarceration, the person would be job-ready when they come out and I think we have a little bit more of a nuanced view of that now. And I think it’s important that we encourage our returning citizens to continue to be involved in educational programs and educational institutions. I really think it can make a difference for individuals.

Len Sipes: What I was surprised of in terms of reading the report was the number of states participating in collegiate programs. Now I understand that this brings a certain level of controversy. And I remember college programs, and we used to advertise them in the state of Maryland put out a press release and then people would call me and yell at me. As to why we’re giving this guy a college education and why he can’t afford to give his own kids a college education, so I understand its implications and I understand the controversy. Yet college programs were in what, Lois, how many states? Is it 32 states had college programs?

Lois Davis: Yes, something like that. Yes.

Len Sipes: And I find that amazing. I didn’t realize it was that extensive, and there is research out there that says that collegiate programs are some of the most powerful programs in terms of getting people to create for themselves a crime-free lifestyle.

Lois Davis: Yes, and two things that I want to say about that. One is it’s important to recognize that when we think about college programs, those are usually paid by the inmates’ families. Or by family finances or in some cases foundations. It’s not necessarily that we’re using federal dollars for those college courses and to a little bit of extent, we use state dollars, but I think it’s important for people to realize that it’s really the inmate and their family that are trying to support those efforts. The other point I wanted to make is that one of things that is really encouraging is that it’s not simply college courses, but it’s really there’s a movement now that’s happening in various states, various initiatives to provide college courses that are going to lay the foundation working towards a degree. And I think that’s important, so it’s not simply a course here, a course there, but it’s really thinking about a program that will allow this individual to works towards an AA degree or a BA degree and that is something that is very encouraging.

Len Sipes: Let’s was philosophical in terms of the remaining moments of the program. You’ve got great reception at the White House; you got great reception in Congress, every correctional administrator that I’ve ever encountered, every parole and probation administrator supports these programs very, very strongly. We do have an emphasis on re-entry, within this administration and within previous administrations. There seems to be an across the board support for these sort of programs from both sides of the aisle, so it’s no longer republican or democratic, we’re getting very strong support from both parties in terms of getting the biggest possible bang for the tax paid dollar in terms of the results of correctional programs. So we have all this ground swell of support in terms of making sure that individuals have the skills that they need to be successful upon release from prison. So from this report, where do we go to from here? What is the hope, what is the dream, what is the possibility?

Lois Davis: Well, from our perspective, one of the things that both policy makers as well as educators, correction officials also, that they need is more information about what tradeoffs can they make and still maintain effective programs? So one of the limitations of the data right now is that we can’t answer some of the more complex questions that are needed to inform those kind of decision-making. And so for example, what models of instructions are associated with the most effective programs? Does dosage matter for example? Those are the kinds of things that we need to really push the evidence base to get at those answers because if you’re an educator and you’re being asked to cut your budget by say 10%, then you’re making choices about both dosage, about program delivery as well as who gets into those programs. So those are the kinds of information that we need to focus on next in order to really help inform those debates.

Len Sipes: But we also really need to get across the point that if you’re going to break the cycle of recidivism, we have 700,000 human beings coming out of prison systems every year. We have, I’ve seen figures saying it’s 4, to 6, to 8 times that in terms of jails. So we have an awful lot of people caught up in the criminal justice system on any given day, 7 million and that doesn’t count again the people who are in and out of the jail system on a fairly regular basis. This is a huge impact, we’re talking about, you know, collectively, millions of people over a certain amount of time. If we want those millions of people to live crime-free lifestyles and stop being tax burdens and start being tax payers, we have to put more money into these programs, correct?

John Litton: We have to put more money in but we have to put more money in a smarter way. And I think that’s one thing that we’re inspired by the report is that is really does a good job at articulating some of our knowledge gaps, that we don’t have the information to guide policy to the extent, policy and practice to the extent that we need to, and that some key questions, as Lois was just recounting, really do need to address, to be addressed and we hope that at the federal level we can provide more effective leadership in terms of giving the type of information that would allow program practitioners at the local or state or federal programs the opportunity to really gear up programs as effectively and as cost effectively as possible to get the best results and extend those resources across the population where it will have the most impact.

Len Sipes: And that would help us establish say what the kind of correctional education is the most powerful, whether or not it’s vocational or educational, whether it’s a combination of the two, if it’s vocational, ok so, maybe plumbing doesn’t work but maybe heating and air conditioning does. I would imagine those are the sorts of things we’re talking about?

Lois Davis: Yes, but also it’s how do we deliver programs. What model of instruction is going to be most effective? But it’s also when you were talking about for example does welding matter? I think that’s another part of the story is understanding where is the demand for jobs? We’re going to be the opportunities for individuals coming out of correctional settings and insuring that we’re providing them those kind of training programs and the kind of nationally industry recognized certificates that will allow them to be ready to find employment upon return.

Len Sipes: Because traditionally the jobs have been in the construction market and the hard labor market, where you’re teaching electricity, plumbing, brick laying, those sorts of things, maybe we should be out there teaching software. Maybe we should be teaching maintenance. Maybe we should be teaching IT. Maybe we should be teaching other things besides the traditional brick laying courses.

Lois Davis: That’s exactly right. It’s really understanding what the demand for jobs will be in particular regions of the country, but also recognizing that our 21st century workforce is going to be very different now.

Len Sipes: This has been a fascinating conversation with the two of you. I really do appreciate you being with us today. How Effective is Correctional Education and Where Do We Go To From Here is the wonderful title from the Rand Corporation and from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, US Department of Justice. Our guests today have been Lois Davis, she is the senior policy researcher for the Rand Corporation and we also had John Litton, the Director of Correctional Education for the US Department of Education. Really appreciate everybody’s participation in the show today and we really appreciate your participation, we appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms and we want everybody to have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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