Vera Institute of Justice Advocates for Prison Education Programs, Reported by The Atlantic

Posted on May 16, 2019

How the War on Drugs Kept Black Men Out of College

Originally Published in The Atlantic on May 15, 2019
Written by Tamara Gilkes Borr

The War on Drugs locked up thousands of black men, and a new study finds that it may have also locked many out of the college classroom—and all the benefits that come with a college degree. Decreased college enrollment has life-long consequences. Only 24 percent of prisoners have some college education, compared with 48 percent of the general public. Without a college degree, the odds of obtaining stable, well-paying employment are even lower; bachelor’s degree holders earn $21,632 more a year than individuals with only a high-school diploma, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As the government spent more money sending black men to prison, it devoted fewer resources to programs that would have helped the formerly incarcerated reenter society after they were released.

The War on Drugs also includes a slate of policies that make it nearly impossible for someone with a drug conviction to access financial aid for college. What’s more, prior convictions can block students from admission to college. What’s more, prior convictions can block students from admission to college. Some colleges ask for criminal history in their application process, and studies have found that having a conviction dramatically decreases the likelihood of admission, even when controlling for all other factors.

Without a college degree, steady employment, and support services, formerly incarcerated people struggle to rebuild their life. Access to education could lower these high recidivism rates. Prison education has been found to reduce re-incarceration by 13 percentage points and increase the odds of employment by 13 percent. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research institute that advocates against mass incarceration, prison education programs save American taxpayers $366 million a year by reducing recidivism, increase public safety by reducing crime, and support businesses by providing a trained workforce. “We as a society need to increase not just access but success in postsecondary education for people who are incarcerated or formerly-incarcerated,” the University of California, Berkeley professor Tolani Britton says. “Because that is one of the few ways for people to change not only their outcomes but their children’s life outcomes.”

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