The criminal justice system’s overreliance on incarceration is now recognized as having life-long effects on the overall economy, those sentenced to prison, and the prisoner’s children as well. Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he argued that in an increasingly competitive global economy, equipping Americans for the modern workforce is an economic imperative. Excessive incarceration harms this productivity. People in prison are people who aren’t working. And without effective rehabilitation, many are ill-equipped to work after release. For the more than 600,000 people who leave prison and re-enter society every year, finding employment can be a severe challenge. Prison time carries a social stigma, which makes finding any job, let alone a good job, all too difficult.
Additionally, Rubin recognized that the costs of incarceration extend across generations. Nearly three million American children have a parent in prison or jail. Growing up with an incarcerated parent harms childhood development. A Pew Institute study shows that children with fathers who have been incarcerated are nearly six times more likely to be expelled or suspended from school. Incarceration therefore helps perpetuate the cycle of family poverty and increases the potential for next generation criminal activity.
Model programs are being piloted at the state-level reintroducing educational programs to prisons that disappeared in the last two decades because of a dearth of funding. For example, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Pathways from Prison to Post-Secondary Education project is working with more than 900 students in 14 prisons. The program provides college classes and re-entry support such as financial literacy training, legal services, employment counseling and workshops on family reintegration. A 2013 meta-analysis by RAND has already found that recidivism decreases when a former inmate graduates from college, which also boosts lifetime earning potential.