The Key to Criminal Justice Reform

In recent election cycles, the idea of criminal justice reform has been a hot topic for both sides of the aisle. Whether you believe we should be harder or softer on crime, the fact is that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with a rate of 655 prisoners for every 100,000 residents. This is a little more than double the number for Turkey, the country with the next greatest amount of incarcerated individuals at a rate of 318 prisoners for every 100,000 of the population. 

Now, I’m not here to debate sentencing ranges or argue whether something should be legal or not. The law is the law, and I have neither the knowledge nor the patience to change it. Instead, I want to discuss what I believe to be one of the most important (and largely ignored) factors in our society that could be vital to preventing crime in the first place: education. 

In 2003, the Bureau of Justice published a study that found that around 41% of incarcerated individuals in the United States did not have a high school diploma or its equivalent, for example, a GED. Then, in 2014, the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) conducted a study where a representative sample of 1,300 prisoners was given multiple assessment tests that evaluated literacy, numeracy, and problem solving abilities, as well as a survey where participants were asked about their highest level of education. Researchers found that 30% had not earned a high school diploma or GED, and when compared to non-incarcerated individuals, most prisoners failed the literacy and numeracy assessments. 

If you’re completely overwhelmed by the statistics and studies, let’s take numbers out of the equation and replace it with a little common sense for the moment. In our world, you must have money to pay for food and necessities. To get money, you need a job, and to get a job, you have to be educated. Without education, you cannot get a job. No job means no money, and no money means no food. But if you have no food, you die. The solution? Stealing from stores or, if you’re creative, selling drugs to make money to buy food at the store (both are crimes, by the way). 

In a report done by Hjalmarsson and Lochner, they concluded that policies which “encourage high school completion…[and] schooling among more crime-prone groups are likely to produce the greatest benefits” in crime prevention and reduction (54). If children are in school, they have less time to be out engaging in criminal activity. Once they’re out of school, they have much more of an opportunity to get a job or have a career to provide for themselves.

It was Diogenes who said, “The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.” Education is the key to a thriving society, and the first step to creating a better, safer world for the generations to come is to realize its importance (as well as the importance of those who serve in its system). 

Without education, we stumble down the dark path of ignorance. Without education, we are lost.