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Virginia Journal of Education


Go to School, Not to Jail


by Tom Allen

The effort you pour into reaching and teaching students, whether they're in elementary school or getting ready to graduate from high school, is not only boosting their chances of career and personal success-it may also be helping keep them out of jail. Higher graduation rates, higher college enrollment rates and higher levels of educational attainment are all connected to lower crime and incarceration rates, facts backed up by new research from the Justice Policy Institute (JPI).

There are more people behind bars in the United States than in any country in the world-over 2 million, according the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Most of those inmates have been less successful in their schooling experience than have most members of the general population. By making some headway in educational attainment, says JPI, we should also make headway in crime and jail rates, saving lives and money along the way.

"Investing in education is about helping children have positive life outcomes," says Jason Ziedenberg, JPI's executive director. "Education creates opportunities to succeed, and education makes it possible for young people to engage the community in positive ways."

Here's some of what JPI's research has found:

Increasing graduation rates is associated with public safety benefits. One study found that an increase of one year in the average years of schooling completed reduces violent crime by nearly 30 percent, motor vehicle theft by 20 percent, arson by 13 percent and burglary by about 6 percent. Who knows how many lives that would save, or how many people would be spared serious emotional and physical trauma?

Cutting down on crime saves society big bucks, too. The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that a 5 percent increase in high school graduation rates for males would amount to an annual savings of nearly $5 billion in crime-related costs. Put that together with the money that the graduates would then earn, and the national total reaches $7.7 billion. Virginia alone, according to the Alliance, stands to gain some $180 million. That kind of money could go a long way in our schools.

States where a higher proportion of residents graduated from high school had lower crime rates. JPI looked at the top 10 states in high school graduation and the bottom 10, and found that, on average, the states that had higher levels of educational attainment also had a crime rate that was lower than the national average.

States where more residents enrolled in college tended to have lower rates of violent crime. JPI found that, on average, states with higher rates of enrollment in college had lower rates of violent crime than did states with lower college enrollment rates. The 10 states with the highest rates of college enrollment had a violent crime rate that was 40 percent lower than the national average. In the 10 states with the lowest college enrollment, five had violent crime rates that were higher than the national average.

States that committed more funds to higher education had larger decreases in violent crime rates. In recent years, the amount of money government has spent on prisons, jails and other corrections expenses has grown at an amazing rate, and spending on education has not kept pace. For example, between 1977 and 1999, state and local government spending on corrections grew by a whopping 946 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In the same time period, spending on all levels of education increased 370 percent.

JPI researched the 10 states with the highest and lowest increases in higher education spending from 2000 to 2005 and studied the changes in crime rates in those states. Of the 10 that had the greatest increases in spending, eight experienced a drop in the violent crime rate.

"We live in a time where there is a lot of anxiety over rising crime," says Ziedenberg, "Communities have choices: They can build bigger jails and hire more police, or they can invest in schools and work to make them the best institutions that they can-help them develop into the kind of community engines they can be."

Higher risks of serving jail time, higher rates of violent crime and low educational attainment in minority communities are concentrated in minority communities. The population of our prison system continues to be dominated by men and women who suffered from educational inequities as they grew up, which frequently happens in communities of color.

For further information, visit JPI's website at www.justicepolicy.org .

Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.


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