The Economic Impact of Prison Rehabilitation Programs
August 17, 2017
The National Institute of Justice reports that over 75% of released inmates are re-incarcerated within five years of discharge from prison; this high re-offending rate is due to many U.S. prisons focusing on punishment, rather than on rehabilitation. 
While 84% of state prisons offer high school classes, only 27% of state prisons offer college courses. Almost all federal prisons offer vocational training compared to only 44% of private prisons and 7% of jails.  While almost all federal prisons have alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs, more than a quarter of all state prisons do not provide prisoners with alcohol and drug dependency, counseling, and awareness programs. 
Although prison rehabilitation programs initially cost prisons money to implement, studies have shown that these programs decrease the recidivism rate, decreasing the prison population. With fewer people in prison, correctional facilities need less money to operate, thus requiring less money from taxpayers. Since educational, vocational, and drug rehabilitation programs decrease the likelihood that inmates will re-offend, they also allow ex-convicts to contribute to society, boosting the economy.
Criminologists have shown that prison education classes drastically reduce the recidivism rate. In Ohio, for example, inmates who enroll in college classes have a re-offending rate of 18%, while prisoners who do not take college courses have a re-incarceration rate of 40%. Prisoners in New York who earn a college degree while incarcerated are almost half as likely to get arrested after release compared to inmates who do not earn a degree.  By decreasing the re-offending rate, prison education programs ultimately save the state money. For example, from 2008 to 2009, Nevada decreased the state’s prison population by 1.6%, which saved the state $38 million and prevented Nevada from spending $1.2 billion on construction costs. When one fewer Nevadan inmate re-offends, the state saves $22,000.  Since about 40% of state inmates and 27% of federal inmates have not completed high school, prison education programs allow inmates to gain the necessary skills they will need to find work outside of prison. 
In addition to educational opportunities, job-training programs in prison reduce the re-offending rate and prove to be cost-effective. For example, Minnesota’s work-release program, which permits inmates to work in the community as they approach their release dates, lowers recidivism rates. Minnesota prisoners who participate in work-release programs are almost twice as likely to find work within the first couple years of release than inmates who do not have work experience. Prisoners who participate in work-release programs are 16% less likely to be rearrested and 17% less likely to be sent back to prison.  From 2007 to 2011, Minnesota’s work-release program saved the state $1.25 million due to the decrease in the prison population. In clearer terms, for each inmate who participates in a work-release program, the state saves $700 on average. Vocational training also allows ex-convicts to give back to society and boost the economy. Minnesota prisoners who received job training paid $459,819 more in income taxes than those who did not get job training. 
Furthermore, alcohol and drug addiction programs have been shown to help prisoners rebuild their lives, increasing the chances that ex-convicts remain outside of prison. The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights reports that about 50% of inmates have a substance use disorder.  Although drug treatment programs are available in the majority of prisons, only 40% of drug-abusing state prisoners and about half of drug-abusing federal prisoners take part in these programs.  Prisoners with drug addictions should be encouraged to participate in these programs because scholars have demonstrated that drug treatment programs save correctional facilities money over time. On average, it costs California prisons $72 a day to incarcerate one prisoner. San Diego’s drug treatment programs have been shown to prevent ex-convicts from returning to prison at a cost of only $65 per day. While prisons saving $7 per prisoner may not seem like much, prisons can save hundreds of thousands of dollars if the majority of prisoners with substance use disorders participate in treatment programs. 
After examining the studies about the cost effectiveness of educational, vocational, and drug treatment programs, it should be a no-brainer for politicians to support policy that emboldens prisons to administer rehabilitation programs for their inmates. It is true that rehabilitation programs have an upfront cost, but policymakers must remember that in the long run, these programs greatly reduce recidivism and people’s tax dollars. It should be evident to lawmakers that the benefits of prison rehabilitation programs, which include a better economy and safer communities, vastly outweigh the costs.
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The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.
Additional Blog Posts
 Grant Duwe, “An Outcome Evaluation of a Prison Work Release Program Estimating Its Effects on Recidivism, Employment, and Cost Avoidance,” Criminal Justice Policy Review 26, no. 6 (2015): 532-533 and 543-544, doi:10.1177/0887403414524590.
 “Incarceration, Substance Abuse, and Addiction,” www.prisonerhealth.org, accessed August 10, 2017, http://www.prisonerhealth.org/educational-resources/factsheets-2/incarceration-substance-abuse-and-addiction/.
 Christopher J. Mumola and Jennifer C. Karberg, Drug Use and Dependence, State and Federal Prisoners, 2004 (Washington: U.S. Department of Justice, 2006), 1, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/dudsfp04.pdf.
 Kathryn E. Mccollister et al., “Long-Term Cost Effectiveness of Addiction Treatment for Criminal Offenders,” Justice Quarterly 21, no. 3 (2004): 672 and 675, doi:10.1080/07418820400095941.