Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Don't deny education opportunities to ex-offenders

If education, as many believe, is the primary path for the disenfranchised to civic participation and economic equality in America, does it make sense to disallow those who've made past mistakes from pursuing a college degree? That's the question faced this morning by the Texas House Higher Ed Committee as it considers HB 1367, and I'm a tad disappointed to see that it's actually House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden carrying the bill - I say disappointed because I think Madden's generally doing a good job as Corrections chair and is generally more sensitive to re-entry issues than this bill would indicate.

Rather than run through the problems with this legislation myself, here's some information from a fact sheet on the subject prepared by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition that gives the main reasons why this is a bad idea, a purely symbolic gesture that amounts to what Bruce Schneier calls "security theater," except in this case with unintended consequences that might actually make the public less safe:

HB 1367 expands the use of criminal background checks at universities (private or public) to ALL students, new and already admitted. Our state universities could run criminal histories on all future and currently enrolled students and expel existing students or deny admission to new students based on the results.

Will not make Texas safer
This bill is intended to increase campus security, but a broad review of all criminal histories will not give administrators the window they need into future criminality of each individual they identify as having committed a crime in the past. Instead, it is likely to result in sweeping rules to exclude or expel large classes of people with criminal records, reducing their access to education and increasing the likelihood that they will commit crimes again.

Higher education is highly correlated with reduced recidivism--even when the college degree is earned in prison. TDCJ studied the effect of higher education (August, 2000) using eight years of post-release data for 883 offenders who received college degrees while incarcerated between 1986 and 1992. Compared to a system-wide recidivism rate of 43%, prisoners who completed an Associate's Degree recidivated at the rate of 27.2% and those who completed a Baccalaureate Degree recidivated at the rate of only 7.8% (which means virtually none of them commit new crimes). Other studies find recidivism to be even lower.

This means that university enrolled students with prior criminal records are highly likely to have completely changed their lives--presenting little security risk as they do so. But University administrators will not have enough information to make nuanced determinations, and will instead need to make decisions for the whole mass of students based on simple, bright lines. The easiest path would be for universities to exclude or expel all students with prior criminal histories, making these students more likely to commit new crimes and making Texas less safe for all of us.

Education is directly correlated to reduced crime rates
Studies show reductions in the crime rate for every incremental increase in education levels. There is a clear decline in incarceration and crime rates with education beyond 8th grade. According to a Hoover Institution researcher, "High school graduation reduces the probability of imprisonment by about 0.8 percentage points for whites and 3.4 percentage points for blacks. A 10 percentage point increase in graduation rates lowers murder and assault arrest rates by about 20%, motor vehicle theft by about 13%, and arson by 8%." For communities to which formerly incarcerated people return, increased higher education in this population can bring increased civic participation, increased economic strength and much more.

Discourages personal responsibility
Current students with a past criminal record--those who have turned their lives around and pursued higher education--could be kicked out of school and left with even fewer options to live responsibly. Currently, a simple arrest may mean the loss of a job, housing, public benefits, and even custody of one's own children. This bill adds educational attainment to this list. When people have no hope for a better future, they are more likely to return to crime.


Anonymous said...

It seems people are making decisions based on making people feel safer while actually doing the opposite! One of the things I learned while getting my psychology degree was that reality has little to do with how we feel about different things. Our perception is what, we as human beings, depend on to guide us. All perceptions are real but may be invalid. Our past experiences and the things we have been taught influence how we perceive things. An example would be the differing perception of race relations for two people; one raised by the Grand Dragon of the KKK vs. the other being raised in a bi-racial family. Two different perceptions based on totally different data but very real to each of the two people.

Logic does not apply to perceptions; only to reality. Thanks Grits for the data to help bring our perceptions closer to reality. I for one, do not want to feel safe, I want to be safe.

Education is one of the things in life that changes people. I have always felt we needed to invest much more in education so we do not have to invest so much in prisons. Many times I have wondered what great things might we, as a nation, done if we put all the wasted money from the current war into educating and feeding people.

Just a few thoughts from an old yellow dog democrat.

Anonymous said...

As a former wrong-doer, I would hate for this to pass as I know it would have directly affected my education. I committed a crime between my sophomore and junior years and was subsequently placed on probation since I was a first time offender. I have since graduated with a bachelor's and master's degrees and am currently working for a university. I cannot begin to think what would have happened to me if I had not been allowed to continue my education.

One thing that wasn't mentioned is the cost of this bill. It will cost lots of money to screen current students plus future applicants which adds to the increasing cost of education. On top of that, add the cost of incarcerating repeat offenders.

I understand wanting to make campuses more safe, but as you said the results might increase safety on campus, but decrease saftey everywhere else.

Thanks for bringing this out in the open. As you said, one of the only ways for people to better themselves after being convicted/adjudicated is to become educated.

Anonymous said...

Amen! Just because someone has a previous record, doesn't guarantee they will do the same things again....and just because someone has no prior record, doesn't mean they won't do something crazy. The whole idea of reaching the status of "EX-offender" should be just that. After the completion of sentence, probation, rehab, etc., the person moves on....I think in the case of non-violent offenses, the criminal record should NOT be a lifelong deterrent....after all, if someone is perpetually frustrated and disappointed by a society that says "you screwed up in the past, it's too late now", they will definitely return to crime and endanger society.