Study shows jail education program reduces recidivism at minimal cost

A new research study finds that inmates who took part in an innovative county jail education program were less likely to return to jail and also built their skillsets at relatively low cost. A working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research assesses the impact of the education program in Flint, Michigan, called Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education (IGNITE).

The program was launched in 2020 by Genesee County Sheriff Christopher R. Swanson, offering courses on reading skills, finance, nutrition, and trades such as welding.

The research was conducted by professors from Harvard, Brown, and the University of Michigan.

Among the scholars’ key findings, based in part on assessing program impact during extended time in jail resulting from court delays:

• One month of inmate participation in IGNITE decreased returns to jail after release by 18 percent over the next three months and 23 percent over a year.

• Participants gained a full grade level of improvement in reading and math scores, which likely contributed to the recidivism reductions.

• The researchers found that taking part in IGNITE during one additional month in jail reduced major misconduct incidents in the jail each week by 49 percent.

• The researchers estimate that one month of program exposure saves around $5,600 per person per year.

Harvard Kennedy School Professor Marcella Alsan learned of the program soon after it was launched. She recruited Harvard Law School Professor Crystal Yang, Brown

University Professor Peter Hull, and University of Michigan graduate student Arkey Barnett to join in evaluating the IGNITE program at the Genesee County jail in Flint and co-authoring the study.

The IGNITE program has now been endorsed by the National Sheriffs’ Association and is rolling out in other facilities across the United States.

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