Report: States Prevent Access to Continued Education for People in the Criminal Justice System

New data from a 50-state report released today reveals how state policies fail to support, and often restrict, incarcerated people from accessing continued education, despite research showing that such education can significantly reduce reoffending and increase employment rates.

The report, Laying the Groundwork: How States Can Improve Access to Continued Education for People in the Criminal Justice System, shows that only 10 states allow all people behind bars to access college and employment certification courses, while the rest prohibit certain segments of the incarcerated population from participating. This is despite a 27-percent unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people—higher than the U.S. unemployment rate during the Great Depression—and rearrest rates as high as 40 percent within one year of release.

Laying the Groundwork also reveals that barriers to education aren’t confined to correctional facilities, but follow people after they’re released: half of all public universities in the U.S. require applicants for admission to disclose their criminal history. This practice has been shown to discourage potential students from even completing their applications.

Most states can’t attribute these challenges to a lack of resources. Only three states use all of the federal funding available specifically to support postsecondary education for people in prison; the rest leave taxpayer money on the table. And two-thirds of states restrict state-based financial aid for currently and formerly incarcerated students, adding another barrier to continued education.

Laying the Groundwork is based on data collected through original surveys of all 50 state correctional agency education directors and parole-granting agencies, as well as extensive online research on state statutes, regulations, and administrative policies, and university application processes. Factsheets for all 50 states accompany the report and include detailed information on specific policies and practices in every state.

The report outlines four essential building blocks states must have in place to make postsecondary education accessible to people impacted by the criminal justice system: making use of available funding, offering a variety of programming aligned with local employer needs, eliminating restrictions on participation, and providing incentives and supports to encourage participation and completion.

Currently, no state has all four of these basic elements in place. And less than half of states meet the criteria for each one of the building blocks, demonstrating that while states may recognize the importance of continued education, they can do much more to ensure that currently and formerly incarcerated people can access it.

To help states make continued education more effective and attainable, Laying the Groundwork includes checklists of best practices that can inform efforts to improve state statute, administrative policy, and funding practices. States can use these checklists to ensure that they are doing all they can to make their communities safer by providing people in correctional facilities and who have a criminal record the opportunity to continue their education.

The report was developed by The Council of State Governments Justice Center and funded by Lumina Foundation. Read the full report and find every state’s factsheet here.