THE BLOG
01/27/2016 02:24 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2017

Real reform only possible through prison education

Every week, it seems, we hear a little bit more about the sweeping reforms needed to fix America's broken criminal justice system.

Even the U.S. government's top leaders - President Barack Obama, even - acknowledge that the 'lock them up and throw away the key' mentality has failed not just incarcerated men and women, but also society as a whole.

More than likely, we're going to hear more talk like this as the presidential election campaign unfurls across the country. But the American public needs to be careful that the discussion is driven by a real understanding of how the system has failed, vs. the political chinwagging that often accompanies election fever.

Yes, the national criminal justice reform agenda needs change, but it goes far beyond the current push to rectify the wrongs caused by the overzealous War on Drugs. Far too many inmates are languishing behind bars serving ridiculous sentences for minor drug infractions, and its contributed to an overcrowded, ineffectual prison system.

But to focus simply on the casualties of drug-related penal policies does a big disservice to all the other inmates imprisoned for non-drug-related but equally minor offenses. Put plainly, limiting our focus to solely drug offenders - however politically savoury this seems - will help just a few at the expense of the whole. It's a nice feel-good gesture, but it's only a fraction of what America needs.

The biggest failing of all would be to ignore the fact that prison education is the only real and lasting way to fix the disaster in our federal (and to a lesser degree, state) prison system. Why give convicted criminals the chance to learn behind bars, you ask? Because education works - not only to changes lives, but as the most cost-effective, proven method of reducing recidivism.

Ultimately, it comes down to what America wants its correctional system to be: is it simply about punishment simply for punishment's sake? Or, enhanced public safety and the greater good caused when we acknowledge that rehabilitation is equally important in allowing incarcerated people to learn the skills they never had in the first place, and leave prison equipped to make it on the outside.

The research is irrefutable: college-level educational programming in American prisons is the best answer to reforming prisoners and slashing recidivism rates. As such, free or otherwise low-cost college programs for prisoners should be put in place using available Pell Grant funding so that prisoners can further their education while behind bars.

America also needs to explore alternative sentencing and other measures to slash its reliance on incarceration in favor of community-based treatment and management models so that those who break the law can stay in their communities and with their families. That's another proven way to break the crime cycle, and thwart the growing school-to-prison pipeline.

Then, there are the costs. The U.S. spends $80 billion a year on corrections with little to show for it. Put this money to better use by helping to reform prisoners so they can return to their communities as productive, law-abiding members of society vs. overcrowded prisons.

Fixing America's broken criminal justice system isn't just about helping a smaller group of cherry-picked minor drug offenders who are deemed politically palpable. Americans would be unwise to forget that its entire correctional system is in need of a major overhaul, well beyond the few offenders now being discussed.