A recent analysis from the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) found that certain prison programs not only reduce crime, but also lower overall prison spending by reducing the costs associated with prison reentry. CEA estimates that mental health or substance abuse treatment may reduce the burden of crime and long-term incarceration costs by up to $5 for every $1 invested by taxpayers. Further, those who return to use of illegal drugs after prison are at risk of a fatal overdose due to the presence of fentanyl and other dangerous synthetic opioids in our drug supply. CEA also found great variation in effectiveness across programs, which suggests reallocating spending from poorly performing programs to higher performing ones could cut recidivism and taxpayer spending at the same time.
Despite these positive returns, there are many programs, such as in education, where the evidence is less conclusive and merits further exploration. There is some evidence to suggest that more educated prisoners are less likely to become recidivists. For example, those who have not completed high school have a 60 percent chance of re-incarceration, while college graduates have a 19 percent chance.
Government investment in prison education can be viewed as an extension of existing public investments — much like public investment for higher income populations through publicly financed schools, universities, and student loans — that build human capital elsewhere in our economy.