Commentary: Educational opportunities are key to combating Kentucky’s high recidivism rate

By Erinn Broadus and Mandy Simpson
Special for NKyTribune

Through state-level expungement and reinstatement reforms over the past few years, Kentucky has made significant progress in reducing its extremely high recidivism rate – the percentage of people returning to jail or jail. – rising from an abysmal 44.5% in 2015 to an improving but still worrying 35.4% in 2018. We can continue to make Kentucky a safer place to live by pursuing policies that position people for successful once they are released from incarceration.

Erinn Broadus

The educational opportunity provides a proven pathway to ensure that Kentucky’s former incarcerates do not reoffend. Skills and the dignity of work provide a better path, and when you make them easier to access, you 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. Additionally, every dollar spent on prison education saves taxpayers $4-5 in incarceration costs.

At the federal level, lawmakers have removed barriers to education by opening up Pell Scholarships to second-chance students. Kentucky may 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, SB 163 achieves this goal by removing the restriction that prohibits students with prior crimes from accessing Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES) scholarship credits. These credits are earned by achieving at least 2.5 GPA each year of attendance at a certified Kentucky high school with the option of earning additional scholarship credits for ACT/SAT, AP, and IB scores. This key policy improvement is a logical extension of the work some post-secondary institutions in Kentucky, like Maysville Community and Technical College, are already doing in providing education for incarcerated people.

mandy simpson

The Kentucky 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 nationally in labor force participation. The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is 27%. The connection between these data points is clear, as is the imperative to address it by providing greater access to education and workforce training. A job is one of the best re-entry programs, and a growing number of second-chance employers in Kentucky are willing to provide such opportunities. The range of job opportunities available to formerly incarcerated Kentuckians is expected to expand further as a result of SB 163.

As the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority notes, Kentucky currently lags the rest of the country in people with two- and four-year degrees — the keys to unlocking better-paying careers. KHEAA supports SB 163 as a vehicle to raise the level of training and propel Kentucky forward.

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

Better public safety outcomes, a stronger workforce and economy, and a more educated population should make SB 163 a high priority for passage before the General Assembly takes action on the half April.

Erinn Broadus is Director of Research at the Pegasus Institute. Mandy Simpson is director of policy for Metro United Way, a partner organization of the Kentucky Smart on Crime Coalition.

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