09/13/2013 09:31 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2013

Is Prisoner Education the Key to Reducing Crime Rates?

We all know that education is a good thing. For one thing it helps you get a better job and earn more money. But we might not have thought just how education can also have a positive effect on inmates. Well criminal justice scholars and researchers have some insight for us. For years they have been adamant in the validity of their reports that the education of United States prison inmates significantly reduces the chance of their return to prison once they are released.

In August, the RAND Corporation released a study that confirms what our criminal examiners have been telling us think about criminal education. This report prepared by the RAND Corporation determined that a prisoner who actively participates in correctional education programs is 43 percent less likely to become a repeat offender than a prisoner who didn't get involved in the programs.

Given that just over half of all United States prisoners are repeat offenders, such a reduction would be significant. Cutting the number of repeat criminal offenders nearly in half would have a considerable positive impact on crime rates and prison occupancy in the United States. That all sounds good, but maybe not so easy.

Unfortunately education is one of the hardest services to provide people who are behind bars and the RAND study shows that the involvement rate of prisoners in educational programs is declining each year. What is the problem? Well, in United States federal prisons, there are as many inmates waiting to get into the educational literacy programs as there are prisoners enrolled and participating in them. Since 1995, the year the Pell Grant access for prisoners was revoked by Congress, the amount of post-secondary prison programs for people behind bars decreased by more than 90 percent, making admittance to education beyond the very basic education programs even more infrequent. So money is the problem -- but not the only problem.

While we now have proof that correctional education programs benefit society and decrease crime rates, the optimal correctional education program is unknown. Well, we might have at least a partial solution for both issues. In 2012, the Vera Institute of Justice launched the Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project which will provide funding for prisoners to enroll in a two- or four-year degree program before their prison release date. The goal of this project is to help prisoners be able to successfully re-enter society, well equipped to work or continue their education.

The Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project is presently working with 21 prisons and 17 colleges across the United States. But, obviously we need more -- more money and cooperation is needed to fund more educational programs like this one. It requires contributions by post-secondary institutions, funding for tuition, internet (Skype) access, tutors at the prisons, and significant input from local businesses to determine what jobs need filling.

It is not easy to get everyone on the same page and so while even if the benefits of the Vera Program are obvious, Republicans in Washington have stated interest in cutting educational funding by $170 billion. This response makes it hard to believe that Congress will provide the required resources to take the project nationwide.