A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Commentary: Educational opportunities are critical to fighting Kentucky’s high recidivism rate

By Erinn Broadus and Mandy Simpson
Special to NKyTribune

Through state-level expungement and reentry reforms of the last few years, Kentucky has seen significant progress in reducing our sky-high recidivism rate — the percentage of people returning to jail or prison — moving from an abysmal 44.5 percent in 2015 to an improving but still troubling 35.4 percent in 2018. We can continue to make Kentucky a safer place to live by pursuing policies that position folks for success once they leave incarceration.

Erinn Broadus

Educational opportunity offers a proven pathway for ensuring formerly incarcerated Kentuckians do not re-offend. Skills and the dignity of work provide a better course, and when we make them easier to access, we see returns on investment. Those who enroll in an education program while incarcerated are 48% less likely to return to prison than those who did not. Furthermore, every $1 spent on prison-based education saves taxpayers $4 to $5 in incarceration costs.

At the federal level, lawmakers have removed barriers to education by opening Pell education grants to second-chance students. Kentucky can follow suit with a similar measure, Senate Bill 163, sponsored by State Senator Brandon Storm of London.

If passed, SB 163 would change student financial aid for convicted and incarcerated students to align with federal policy changes and provide more educational opportunities. Importantly, one way SB 163 accomplishes this goal is by removing the restriction that prohibits students with past felonies from accessing the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES) scholarship credits. These credits are earned by achieving at least a 2.5 GPA each year of attendance at a certified Kentucky high school with the possibility of attaining additional scholarship credit for ACT/SAT, AP, and IB scores. This key policy improvement is the logical extension of the work some Kentucky postsecondary institutions, like Maysville Community and Technical College, are already doing by providing instruction to incarcerated individuals.

Mandy Simpson

Kentucky’s business community joins education leaders and criminal justice experts in supporting SB 163. According to the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s recent report, “20 Years in the Making – Kentucky’s Workforce Crisis,” the Commonwealth ranks 48th in the nation for workforce participation. The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated individuals is 27 percent. The link between these data points is clear, as is the imperative to address it by providing better access to education and workforce training. A job is one of the best reentry programs, and a growing number of Kentucky second chance employers are standing ready to provide such opportunities. The range of job opportunities available to formerly incarcerated Kentuckians stands to grow even further as a result of SB 163.

As the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority notes, Kentucky currently lags the rest of the country when it comes to individuals holding two-year and four-year degrees—the keys to unlocking higher paying careers. KHEAA supports SB 163 as a vehicle to raise educational attainment and propel Kentucky forward.

SB 163 has also garnered strong support from the NAACP because of its ability to help address racial inequities in the state. Currently, Black Kentuckians make up 8% of our state population, but 21% and 22% of the prison and jail population.

Better public safety outcomes, a stronger workforce and economy, as well as a more educated citizenry should make SB 163 a high priority for passage before the General Assembly gavels out in mid-April.

Erinn Broadus is Research Director at Pegasus Institute. Mandy Simpson is Chief Policy Officer for Metro United Way, a partner organization in the Kentucky Smart on Crime Coalition.

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