The Times West Virginian

Opinion

September 19, 2013

Lead students to college and career, away from life of crime and prison

It’s no secret that West Virginia has some major hurdles to overcome regarding the state’s prison system.

Facilities are crowded. Funding is limited. Debate ensues over programs meant to deter repeat offenders.

And even though steps have been taken to tackle the state’s inmate crowding crisis — circuit judges can include six-month early supervised release terms when they sentence nonviolent offenders; courts can use a research-supported method to assess an offender’s needs and risks; and the Industrial Home for Youth, which had been a facility for juvenile offenders, became the Salem Correctional Center for adults, a switch that adds 400 beds to the adult prison system — more remains to be done.

A national policy group suggests part of the solution could be as simple as keeping kids in school.

The Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Excellent Education released a report last week that says a 5 percent increase in the high school graduation rate among males in West Virginia could save $100 million each year in crime-related costs as well as boost the state’s economy by as much as $5.7 million in benefits.

According to a report by The Associated Press, the study cited federal data that shows 56 percent of federal inmates, 67 percent of inmates in state prisons and 69 percent of inmates in local jails did not complete high school.

Nationally, increased graduate rates among males would prompt a decrease of 60,000 assaults, 37,000 larcenies, 31,000 motor vehicle thefts and 1,300 murders, the study said.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, West Virginia’s graduation rate was about 78 percent in 2010. The dropout rate for all male students was 4.4 percent, compared to 3.6 percent for female students. As the Charleston Daily Mail reported, West Virginia education officials worry about dropouts because of their effects on the state and local economy as well as on the students themselves.

And while dropping out of high school doesn’t automatically result in a life of crime, former Gov. Bob Wise, who serves as president of the education advocacy group, said dropouts are far more likely than high school graduates to be arrested or incarcerated.

“The nation needs to focus dollars and efforts on reforming school climates to keep students engaged in ways that will lead them toward college and a career and away from crime and prison,” Wise said.

Think about what a difference those dollars and efforts could make. The study found that it costs $12,643 to educate a student and $28,323 to incarcerate an inmate.

As Wise said, “The school-to-prison pipeline starts and ends with schools.”

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